Barbican Britten – Curlew River [Ian Bostridge, Gwynne Howell, Neal Davies, Mark Stone, Duncan Tarboton; directed by Netia Jones]

Curlew River, Op.71 – A parable for church performance to a libretto by William Plomer [based on the Japanese Noh-play Sumidagawa by Juro Motomasa]

Madwoman – Ian Bostridge
Abbot – Gwynne Howell
Traveller – Neal Davies
Ferryman – Mark Stone
Spirit of the Boy – Duncan Tarboton

Britten Sinfonia Voices

Members of the Britten Sinfonia [Clare Fennimore (viola), Stephen Williams (double bass), Emer McDonough (flute & piccolo), Richard Wainwright (horn), William Lockhart (percussion) & Celine Saout (harp)]
William Lacey (chamber organ)

Netia Jones – Director, Designer, Video & Costumes
Lightmap – Video & Projection
Ian Scott – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 15 November, 2013
Venue: St Giles, Cripplegate, Barbican, London

Illustration of positions of players on a Noh(能)stage. Center: shite (main actor) wearing mask and holding fan. Front right: waki. Right: eight-person jiutai (chorus). Back: four hayashi-kata (musicians), from right to left: fue (flute), kozutsumi (shoulder drum), ohzutsumi (hip drum) and taiko. Left rear: two kohken (stage hands).Benjamin Britten’s experience of Japanese Noh drama in the late-1950s had a profound effect on him. Like many artists drawn away from Western sophistication to Eastern philosophical ideals of spiritual focus, he responded in Curlew River with music of daring sparseness and mind-expanding self-effacement.

Netia Jones, who oversaw direction, video projections and design, creates a highly charged staging – one, sadly, that probably won’t be seen again, save for these three performances (this was the second). She managed to honour the spirit of the music’s expressive economy, allowing its seeming simplicity to speak with uncompromising passion. My heart sank when I saw this Curlew River billed as “a new multimedia staging”, but the evocative video projections of the Curlew River waters, the ferry wharf, and the darting Magritte-like bird shapes were deployed with Japanese restraint, and the only other medium involved was a heady cloud of incense filling the church (and creating some stunning lighting effects), the smell of ancient ritual that at a stretch you could imagine being enacted in a medieval Fenland church (as in the stage directions).

A platform laid down the nave ended with a boat’s abstract prow facing east (the direction the ferry takes to cross the Curlew River towards release, renewal and enlightenment), with the seven musicians gathered at the west wend. With similar, elegant economy, Jones neatly caught the Christian annexation of the Japanese parable by dressing the Abbot and his chorus of pilgrims in habits covered in Japanese script, presumably the text of the Noh play, Sumidagawa, which William Plomer adapted for his libretto.

The big plus was Jones dispensing with the stylisations that have marked productions from the premiere onwards. There were no masks, wigs, gaudy costumes, startling make-up or Noh movement; and the apparition of the Madwoman’s dead son was done with admirable restraint. The ritual still came across strongly, but for once you didn’t feel distanced from the action. If this all sounds too Presbyterian, it wasn’t – if anything, it opened the emotional floodgates.

Ian Bostridge’s gratifyingly unmannered Madwoman engaged to the nth degree with the music and the story as Britten’s greatest outsider. I hadn’t realised how distinctive the singer’s lower range has become, and the clarity and depth at the centre of his voice is still a shining star in tenor heaven. Every utterance of the haunting ’Let me in. let me out’ refrain cut to the quick, and his portrayal of the Madwoman’s acceptance of her son’s death, her sorrow and the retreat of her madness was incredibly powerful.

Mark Stone’s superbly-sung Ferryman was just as strong, the roughness and growing sympathy for the Madwoman and her plight played with perception and tenderness. His mid-river narration of the boy’s death was as involving as I’ve ever heard it. Neal Davies added layers of enigma to the role of the Traveller, and Gwynne Howell’s resonant Abbot seemed like a medieval statue come to life. The Spirit of the Boy, rendered with piercing beauty by Duncan Tarboton, was very effectively realised with shadow-play.

The Britten Sinfonia forces let you hear the riches of Britten’s spare scoring with warmth and nuance – flautist Emer McDonough ghosted the Madwoman like an alter ego with magical playing, a character without words, and Celine Saout’s playing reminded you of the originality of Britten’s writing for harp. William Lacey kept a discreet, firm hand on the music’s pace, animated the layering of Britten’s vocal and instrumental sounds with an easy, natural flow, and left one amazed at the grip this extraordinary musical and spiritual vision exerts.

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