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Summer Opera: Britten's Curlew River

I thought I had written the final summer opera post on Britten, but it is still officially summer in Scotland. Actor/director Olivier Py directed a rare production of Britten's Curlew River at the Edinburgh International Festival (August 15 to 19). The libretto is based on the Noh play Sumidagawa (The Madwoman at the Sumida River), which was also staged in Edinburgh this year. David Murray reviewed the production (Curlew River, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 18) for the London Financial Times:

[Librettist William] Plomer conceived [his adaptation] as a play-within-a-play put on by a troupe of Christian monks, led by their abbot. In East Anglia a bereaved mother crazed by grief, the Madwoman, searches on a ferryman's boat for her lost son, and is at last consoled by the appearance of his spirit at his tomb. Britten adapted his style radically for this very un-English but irresistibly moving story, with a mere seven-strong band of monodic instruments each following its own path, like the five solo singers and small chorus (all male). He never wrote another opera like it, though the other two little operas he composed later as companion-pieces share some of its features. With Garry Walker’s perceptive conducting, the tenor Toby Spence adapts his usual exuberance for the desperate Madwoman. Tim Mirfin incarnates the wise and kindly Abbot; William Dazeley sings the staunch Ferryman, and Neal Davies the sympathetic Traveller. They are all good to hear, and the stage-realisation is faultless.
Tim Ashley's review (Curlew River, August 17) for The Guardian puts the work in a more religious context:
Catholic director Olivier Py's new production is a devastating experience, theologically exacting, yet never for a second swamping naked emotion beneath religious imagery or ritual. Py's basic idea is that suffering represents for each of us a private Calvary. While dressing for the performance of their "mystery", the monks playing the Madwoman, the Ferryman and the Traveller are daubed with Christ's stigmata. The revelation that the child buried by the river is the Madwoman's son is staged as the deposition from the cross, while the appearance of the boy's spirit hints at images of Christ triumphant. Py also implies that the Madwoman is not alone in her agony: the Traveller clutches a picture of an unidentified woman throughout - perhaps his wife, but certainly someone both lost and hopelessly sought.
In his review (Edinburgh reports: tragedy gets lost in the comedy, August 17) for The Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen is not as enthused:
"Please note, there is some nudity in this production" reads a sign in the foyer. Here we go, I thought, skinny-dipping in Britten's Curlew River, whatever next. In the event, there was only the momentary stripping of poor Toby Spence as he is ritually transformed from a lyric tenor into a lady in a long black dress, but yes, it was pretty gratuitous - one of several desperate tactics by the director Olivier Py, who clearly does not trust this austere moral drama to make its effect without some extra theatrical frissons.
On the other hand, Lynne Walker's review (There's no business like 'Noh' business, August 18) for The Independent gives some interesting details:
Py is adamant that, despite being performed by men, the piece shouldn't come across as a camp work. The young British tenor Toby Spence plays the madwoman. He has learnt from Py, he says, how to get inside the skin of a woman. When not directing, Py has another life as a chanteuse, a comic-tragic creation called Miss Knife, yet to make her Edinburgh debut. Spence was mesmerised when he caught Py's one-man/woman show in Paris.
You have to see the pictures of Le Cabaret de Miss Knife to believe it. (There is also some video footage from Miss Knife's appearance in New York.) Lynne Walker also reviewed the Noh play, Sumidagawa, which was the focus of the review by Alastair Macauley (Sumidagawa, The Hub, Edinburgh, August 18) for the London Financial Times, in addition to some remarks on the opera:
To see Curlew River back to back with Sumidagawa is an opportunity that most of us will never have again. They share very much the same dramatic schema. A ferryman tells of the anniversary of the burial of a 12-year-old boy; it becomes clear that the Madwoman who is among his passengers is the mother of this dead child; the ferryman leads her to the tomb; she invokes the ghost; the ghost appears and vanishes; she is left disconsolate but healed. The power of this drama, delivered with extreme economy by an all-male cast, emerges through the blend of movement, music and, above all, stylised dramatic vocalism. One would like to analyse at length the extraordinary use of chanting, of chest and head tones, and of heavy tremolo used by the dramatic soloists. The effect is cumulative: so that, at Edinburgh, the performance by the shite (leading actor) Tetsunojo Kanze achieved heightened emotion of a most haunting kind. The fixed gaze of his mask was riveting; his slow arm gestures towards the eyes and away from it were piercing; his changing place, direction, and rhythm within the overall stage geometry created many intensities. Certain phrases, never loud but delivered with a particular vocal pressure, rising and falling as do so many lines in Noh, acquired an astounding level of pain, bewilderment, and loss, throbbing in the mind’s ear long after the performance.
OK, if we add Edinburgh, next year's Ionarts junket of summer festivals is going to be a long trip. By the way, this production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, September 18, at 6:30 pm.

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