Thursday 14 November 2013

Curlew River - A Review

(c) Netia Jones / Lightmap

Over the course of the Barbican Britten celebrations, Britten Sinfonia is delighted to be taking such a major role with performances across four of the Barbican’s performance spaces. Last week we performed with tenor Ian Bostridge and conductor Paul Daniel in Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers in the Barbican Hall and collaborated with Richard Alston Dance Company in the premier of new choreographic works to Britten’s Phaedra and Sechs Hölderin Fragmente alongside Lacrymae and Les Illuminations.

This week I was lucky enough to go along to the dress rehearsal of one of Britten’s operas, Curlew River which is being presented in three sell-out performances at St Giles’ Cripplegate on 14, 15 and 16 November 2013. The opera was originally premiered nearly 50 years ago at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford, Suffolk and is set in the East Anglian Fenland, an area very close to Britten’s heart.

The original inspiration for the opera comes from an ancient Japanese noh play, translated into a Christian parable and libretto by William Plomer. Directed by Netia Jones, the production this week stays true to the medieval setting in terms of costume, but is treated to some simple but effective lighting, projections and set.

Most iconic is the way that the projections interact with the character of the Madwoman, played by tenor, Ian Bostridge (a role which was originally performed by Britten’s lifelong companion, Peter Pears in the opera’s 1964 premiere). A tall figure dressed from head to toe in black, the character’s madness is portrayed through the splashes she makes on the projections of grass, and the way in which the ‘Curlews of the Fenland’ circle about her. The vocal lines of the Madwoman slide between notes in a manic way, frequently mimicked by the other characters and chorus.

Musically, the opera is a work for a seven part chamber ensemble, and in this production the vocalists are directed from the chamber organ by William Lacey. The other instruments are also assigned specific points in the score in which to lead, something which is particularly suited to Britten Sinfonia’s usual performance style, of playing unconducted.

Benjamin Britten used Japanese influences within the score, and this can be heard a lot in the percussion section; the signature ‘bouncing ball’ rhythm featuring at different instrumental sections and the use of gongs and un-tuned drums. Also common in Japanese music is the use of heterophony (the same musical line being repeated with different tempi and rhythms at the same time) and this is used by Britten in sections where he wants to make the chorus sound like they are chattering.

Overall the narrative of the opera is a simple one: A year after losing her 12 year old son and torn by grief and madness, a mother goes looking for him, taking a ferryboat across Curlew River. Whilst on the ferryboat, the ferryman tells a story of a young boy who was kidnapped and took the boat a year ago. The boy fell ill and died in the village on the other side of the river and was buried in the local chapel. On realising that the boy was her son, the mother visits the chapel in despair, prays to her son, and his ghost returns to reassure her that they will meet once again in heaven one day.

The three Curlew River performances are now sold out, but you can still visit Curlew River Echo, a free audio-visual installation in St Giles’ Cripplegate, taking place on 15 & 16 November 2013.

Listen to Netia Jones, William Lacey and Ian Bostridge talk about Curlew River in a Barbican Britten Podcast

The final performance in our Barbican Britten Series, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, will take place on 24 November 2013 at Milton Court. Prior to this, this programme also tours to Norwich on Sunday 17 November and Cambridge on Friday 22 November. Click here  for more information and to book tickets.

Lisa Buckby 
Marketing Assistant

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