Sumidagawa and Curlew River

Sumidagawa [Noh play, performed in Japanese]
Curlew River – A parable for church performance to a libretto by William Plomer [in English]

Madwoman – Tomotaka Sekine
Ferryman – Kenkichi Tonoda
Traveller – Hideshi Norihisa
Spirit of the Boy – Hanae Sekine
Actors from Tokyo University of the Arts
Takahiro Fujita (Noh flute)
Mitsuhiko Sumikoma (Shoulder-drum)
Jun Kunikawa (Hip-drum)
Tomotaka Sekine – Director

Curlew River
Abbott – Jun Ito
Madwoman – Jun Suzuki
Ferryman – Akiya Fukushima
Traveller – Michio Tatara
Spirit of the Boy – Hal Arnold-Foster
Ensemble of young British opera singers
Musicians from Tokyo University of the Arts
Dominic Wheeler (chamber organ)
David Edwards – Director
Colin Mayes – Designer

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 7 September, 2012
Venue: Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Opportunities to witness the Japanese Noh play that inspired Benjamin Britten during his 1955 Grand Tour are rare, and that alone would be reason enough to mark out this performance as special. But the occasion had yet more to offer. In pairing Sumidagawa with its Suffolk offspring, Curlew River, a talented troupe of Japan’s most experienced exponents of both western and traditional Japanese opera (visiting under the aegis of Tokyo University of the Arts) here gives England the chance to celebrate what unites, rather than divides, each nation’s cultural heritage.

The fifteenth-century tale of Kanze Motomasa (1395-1431) telling of a Madwoman, bereaved of her child, whose ferry crossing brings her to deliverance and peace at a shrine for the dead where she hears the voice of her son, is one that Britten and his librettist, William Plomer, would follow to the letter in Curlew River. The musical terrain, though, is far less familiar. Sumidagawa offers an intensely stylised experience; yet for all its stillness and the slender nature of its storyline across ninety minutes the dramatic pulse is magnetically sustained.

In its opening moments an offstage flute and drum made sounds of such beauty and otherness that not even the distant revving of cars on Commercial Street could pierce the mood. The Ferryman (Kenkichi Tonada) uttered deep, melismatic sounds – hypnotic, almost tuneless and peppered with tiny, hollow-throated yodels – that struck the ear as at once ancient and avant-garde. The instrumentalists and men of the chorus represented the boat and the river itself: spare, repeated figures and drum interjections of an almost random syncopation evoked bobbing boats and water lapping quietly on its banks. Only when, mid-river, the Ferryman related the fate of the boy who died of exhaustion, did this accompaniment cease.

There was a near-western musicality to the Madwoman’s wailing: Tomotaka Sekine’s voice, issuing from behind a painted mask, echoed the reedy tenor timbre of Peter Pears himself. The actor-director’s assumption of the role was profoundly affecting, even though (or perhaps because) his movements, like those of the Ferryman and the Traveller (Hideshi Norihisa), were executed with a ritual simplicity and deliberation that recalled miniature figurines on tiny plinths. However, the drama’s most breathtaking moment occurred when, after almost an hour and a half of male vocalising, a treble voice (representing the Spirit of the Boy) entered into the choral texture. It was an ethereal, magical intrusion.

The simple stage, set a couple of feet higher than the floor of the nave, was troubling on one level. Although no designer was credited for Sumidagawa, sightlines for some in the audience were compromised by the cruel placement of two squat wooden uprights that impeded the view of, and connection with, performers who might barely move for long periods. A bare platform would have been preferable.

The stripped-back beauty of Christ Church, Spitalfields, Hawksmoor’s East End ‘cathedral’, proved to be the ideal setting for Sumidagawa, as it should notionally have been for Curlew River as well. Sadly, though, the latter’s director, David Edwards, when deciding to do something original and modern with the work only succeeded in two things: to emphasise the beauty of Sumidagawa’s simplicity and to diminish the profundity of Britten’s inspiration. Edwards’s visual fussiness was an embarrassment in this context and merits only the briefest of comments.

On a stage littered with detritus and awash with that familiar refuge of the creatively constrained, polythene, seven musicians (six young Japanese players led by Dominic Wheeler) entered sporting translucent sheets over their heads. They quickly shed these pointless accretions, with as much dignity as they could muster, and got down to the business of playing (which they did supremely well, with Emi Kubota’s limpid flute and Yumeji Kataoka’s precise double bass playing quite outstanding). Costumes: the Ferryman sported a hard hat and an oar, the Traveller a rucksack and a pair of binoculars and the Madwoman a coat of rags that on closer inspection turned out to have been patched together from the clothes of her dead son. The chorus had shreds of paper pinned to their bonnets and boiler-suits; the Madwoman wore a colander on her head from which sprouted gorgon-like paper dreadlocks. By the time the Boy appeared as a bespectacled feathered bird, the sense of mortification (and not a little shame) was complete.

As Robin Holloway said of Curlew River, “Just as the acting area gives next to nothing to see, so this music gives next to nothing to hear; but this minimum suffices to render river, marsh and circling birds with startling vividness”. While in its visual realisation the production completely lost sight of this essential character of the work, some excellent musicianship from the soloists, instrumentalists and chorus of young British singers – and in particular a quite wonderful portrayal of the Madwoman by Jun Suzuki, a gifted and thrilling tenor – allowed Britten’s score to transcend the fatuity. It is hard to overstate the extent to which Suzuki’s powerful, richly-coloured timbre saved the experience from total calamity.

  • A further performance of Sumidagawa and Curlew River at 3 p.m. on Sunday 9 September at the Church of St Bartholomew, Orford, Suffolk, the venue for Curlew River’s first performance in 1964
  • Sumidagawa-Curlew River

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