United States Britten, Curlew River: Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices (Eamonn Dougan, director), Martin Fitzpatrick (conductor), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California. 15.11.2014 (HS)
Madwoman: Ian Bostridge, tenor
Abbot: Jeremy White, baritone
Traveller: Neal Davies, bass
Ferryman: Mark Stone, bass-baritone
Spirit of the Boy: David Schneidinger
Altar Servants: Jeroen Breneman, Sivan Faruqui, Louis Pecceu;
Direction, design, costumes, video: Netia Jones
To call Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River an opera is a bit of stretch. He subtitled the story of a madwoman searching for her lost child a “church parable,” and by design there’s little action or overtly displayed emotion; it’s all in the music. But it’s not an oratorio either, based as it is on concepts of Japanese noh theater, which itself uses a small musical ensemble to convey much of its emotional impact.
Whatever you call it, the Britten Sinfonia’s collection of singers and instrumentalists made Curlew River mesmerizing at the University of California, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, as part of the musicians’ tour of the United States. Previous stops included the Church of St. John the Divine in New York. Presented here by Cal Performances, the London-based ensemble and cast, led by the tenor Ian Bostridge, spun out the music—a unique mix of Japanese inflected medieval heterophony and the composer’s inimitable style of melismatic solo vocal writing—with precision and soulfulness.
In plain English, every singer delivered magnificent and distinctively rich sound. The instrumentalists added colorful accents. And Netia Jones’ simple production, first seen in London in 2013, gave them space to focus without distraction. A narrow sail served as a screen to project background images of flowing water or birds flying. A gravel path along one side of the stage highlighted the entrance of a chorus of abbots, who used their robes in varying ways to portray the characters in the story.
Originally created for performance in church, Curlew River maintained its sense of serenity and austerity in the 1,000-seat auditorium. The stark story centers on a woman driven mad by her year-long search for her missing 12-year-old son; she implores a reluctant ferryman to take her across the river. Encouraged by the other passengers, he does, and relates the story of a young boy left by a brute who abducted him to die in the fens across the river. The villagers consider the boy a saint. The Madwoman fears the boy is hers.
At the grave, the boy appears to the Madwoman, bruised but still angelic, and sings to her that they will one day meet in heaven. Sung seraphically by David Schneidinger, borrowed from the Pacific Boychoir, the boy’s music spread balm over the proceedings.
A tenor portraying the Madwoman is another element borrowed from male-only noh. Bostridge somehow achieved both tranquility and a tight emotional grip, most effectively in this final scene: knowing what has happened to the son, relief infused Bostridge’s face and voice.
The lower voices in the supporting cast performed at the same level. The opening scene set the tone, with its small chorus of monks intoning a plainchant. Bass-baritone Mark Stone as the Ferryman, bass Neal Davis as the Traveller, and baritone Jeremy White as the Abbot delivered singing of richness and grace. The instrumental ensemble created colorful moments of their own, especially flutist Karen Jones’ lengthy and evocative portrayal of a bird, and percussionist Scott Bywater’s idiomatic Japanese interjections.
The crux, however, is the beauty and endless fascination of Britten’s music. In a little over an hour he creates another world, evocative of church music that preceded the Renaissance. The wandering melodic journey of the Madwoman’s music—written of course for his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears—bears a striking resemblance to what he wrote for the title character in the opera Peter Grimes. And with that we know where we are, in the timeless imagination of a great composer for vocal theater. Curlew River is meant for the reverberant confines of a church, but it also works, at least in this case, in a big theater.