Birmingham Opera Company
The Madwoman Mark Wilde
The Ferryman Rodney Clarke
The Traveller Iain Paterson
Spirit of the Boy Benjamin Durrant
The Abbott Keel Watson
Birmingham Opera Company Chorus
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Graham Vick director
Simon Halsey music director
Richard Hudson designer
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 28 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
I understand that you want to know what happened on the 28 inst. at the Royal Albert Hall in London? Well, let me refer to my notes.
Ah, yes … here we are! I was proceeding along Kensington Gore when I was asked to investigate the goings-on at the late-night Prom. As I arrived I heard slow-hand-clapping from the audience. The time was 22.15. I ascertained that despite being informed that the start-time had been put back fifteen minutes (from the advertised 10 o’clock start) – because the final touches to Richard Hudson’s designs required more time to be effected (following the London Philharmonic’s appearance earlier that evening) – the audience was wondering whether the show was ever going to start.
Such nervousness may well have been exacerbated by the presence of impostors purporting to be members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary (some I noted flaunting regulation haircuts), who sidled round the Royal Albert Hall’s Arena amongst those few Promenaders who had been allowed in, as if there was a terrorist alert. I’ve had been informed that space was restricted to only 150 such persons (whereas there is usually room for about 1000), and those not admitted to the Arena were re-sited on the Royal Albert Hall stage, some on seats, others on the platform’s risers. Such prescribed Promenaders were warned against sitting in the first three rows at the edge of the stage which were populated by mufti-dressed silent observers (of whom more anon).
It turned out that these anonymous ‘Constabulary Charlatans’ were there to gently guide standing Promenaders out of the way of moving podiums, while yet more impostors – this time fully uniformed (as opposed to the silent group, who were in shirtsleeves and bullet-proof vests) – entered as Britten’s chorus (three tenors, three baritones and two basses) assuming the roles that the composer had actually written for monks.
His Curlew River, Britten using for a template the form of a Japanese Noh play, is set in Britten’s beloved East Anglia in the 12th century, and is a contemplative Church Parable about the redemptive power of the spirit. A Madwoman travels to find out what happened to her son and, in crossing Curlew River (something witnessed by the Boatman and the Traveller) finds his tomb, one already associated with miraculous cures. Her quest ended, she recovers from her madness.
The original idea, to a libretto by William Plomer, framed the action with a Latin introduction of monks processing and ‘retelling’ the tale as if in cloisters. Here, with Keel Watson’s Abbot transformed, in uniform, to a Chief Constable, the updating altered the spiritual parable to a Police Concert Party.
Equating peelers with monks seemed to make no sense; monks were not law enforcers in the 12th-century (or indeed any other) and their purposes bear little common ground. Perhaps Graham Vick (seen wandering about in the Arena) has been watching too much of Derek Jacobi as Cadfael (or reading too many of Ellis Peters’s novels), but he should know that Cadfael only ever helps the Sheriff in his law-enforcing duties!
And so the parable proper started. One cannot fault the performances; the members of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, also in regulation police shirts, were crowded into the centre of the acting area constructed in the middle of the Arena. Clarke, Paterson and, later, Wilde all changed out of uniform and into civvies for the duration; and any sense of the important journeying motif of crossing the river was utterly dissipated when The Traveller – who clearly has walked across the Fens to the river -– was glided across the arena on one of four moving podiums.
Thankfully, none of this misconceived nonsense was forced on Mark Wilde who entered in ‘50s-style housecoat and cardigan pushing an empty pram with a picture of her lost boy. He was restrained in his/her madness and all the more moving for that. In fact the singing contributions were above reproach; the confusing visual element would have provided no hindrance to a full enjoyment for listeners to Radio 3.
At the climax, the Madwoman at her son’s shrine, the silent onlookers took out teddy bears and children’s clothing and after this moment of bemused catharsis vacated the stage in separate bursts (the two persons remaining were, I think, bemused Promenaders who had sat there by mistake). If this is Graham Vick’s idea of community collaboration I think he could be had up on trade-description charges. When one thinks of his astounding treatment of Meistersinger at the Royal Opera and Eugene Onegin at Glyndebourne, where his evocation of real communities afforded a believable backdrop for each opera’s action, this puzzling mish-mash of ideas detracted from Britten’s work. The composer’s interest in the original Japanese drama was partly to do with the “the simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action.” Here we were given unhelpful modern accretions and a constant motion that negated the ritual development of Britten’s conception.
Roundly applauded by a gratifyingly large late-night audience – Simon Halsey notable by his absence – my report registers that many attendees were puzzled and cheated. Toby Wilsher’s more traditional version, for what used to be City of Birmingham Touring Opera, achieved a truer, stiller milieu for the action.
Curlew River was filmed and is shown on BBC4 on Sunday, 1 August, at 23.00; it may be required as evidence for any charges made regarding infringement against Britten’s artistic integrity. I wasn’t the only one who thought that the police uniforms meant a change of programme – to Pirates of Penzance. Certainly, this policeman’s lot is not a happy one for having to report on aesthetic licence gone awry.