Hampstead and Highgate Springfest – Curlew River

Curlew River – a parable for church performance

Abbot – Lynton Black
Ferryman – Andrew Slater
Traveller – Christopher Foster
Madwoman – Robert Murray
The Spirit’s Voice – Harry Smouha

Springfest Opera Chorus

Springfest Ensemble
George Vass

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 10 May, 2009
Venue: St Stephen’s, Pond Street, London NW3

This first Springfest (the new name for the Hampstead and Highgate Festival) has a number of important events, one of the more significant being this new production of Britten’s “Curlew River” given in the large, acoustically fine, 1869 Anglican Church of St Stephen’s, presently undergoing much renovation and structural underpinning.

George Vass. Photograph: georgevass.co.uk“Curlew River”, the first of the three consecutive “parables for church performance” as Britten and his librettist William Plomer described them, is now over forty years old, and still poses problems when performing it. If the nature of the work in terms of production values would appear to be entirely simple – this one, directed by Sebastian Harcombe and produced by Alison Porter, saw fit to remove the inherent all-male monastic ritual by introducing a wholly irrelevant and, in the circumstances, unrealistic young girl – the silent personification of the Madwoman – played by Clementine Wade, who looked no more than twenty years old. Her age is important, for in the story the woman had a son of 12 who died a year before the events depicted took place (the implication is also that she is now past child-bearing age, making her loss the greater); the boy’s spirit was personified by a youngster who looked no more than eight or nine.

Yet neither a real girl or boy are called for in this ritualistic church parable, performed by monks for a medieval congregation, but putting these distracting irrelevancies (which went against the letter and spirit of the work) to one side, the purely musical aspects of this performance were beyond reproach.

I doubt if this extraordinarily original masterpiece could have been better sung, or vocally characterised in any finer respect than that witnessed on this occasion. From the very beginning, it was obvious that George Vass had chosen the cast wisely; the Abbot, Lynton Black, set the scene superbly well in appearance and in vocal quality. The three main male characters were each taken by singers of high quality, and if one singles out Robert Murray’s spellbinding Madwoman as being certainly the equal (and, as he approached those rare falsetto passages, the superior) of Peter Pears, the creator of the role, this is not to detract from his partners.

The role of the Madwoman has surely never been better done in the 45 years since the first production. Christopher Foster and Andrew Slater, the voices of reason, completed this utterly outstanding cast, distinguished also by the audience being able to hear every word. George Vass held the ensemble together admirably (in those sections of this rather fluid score where it is needed), and the individual playing of the instrumental septet was exemplary.

A memorable occasion indeed, at least for its musical content. Having sat through some less than convincing accounts of this work, it was revelatory to hear “Curlew River” as I am sure the composer intended it to be heard – although he would have been annoyed at the seemingly deliberate obfuscation of his explicit intentions regarding staging.

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