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    Curlew River at Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, NC - Review

    Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance, sung in English and Latin (1964)

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    Ian Bostridge as The Madwoman, photo credit Mark Allan, fair promotional use

    Music by Benjamin Britten
    Libretto by William Plomer, based on the 15th century Noh theater play Sumidagawa by Jürö Motomasa

    The Production, Cast, and Crew

    Britten Sinfonia; Martin Fitzpatrick, music director
    Britten Sinfonia Voices; Eamonn Dougan, chorus director
    Soloists from the Pacific Boychoir

    Cast

    Ian Bostridge, tenor, The Madwoman
    Jeremy White, bass, The Abbot
    Neal Davies, baritone, The Traveller
    Mark Stone, baritone, The Ferryman
    David Schneidinger, boy treble, Spirit of The Boy

    Netia Jones, director, designer and live video performer
    Ian Scott, lighting designer
    Jemima Penny, costumes
    Susana Peretz, hair/make-up designer

    Co-produced by Carolina Performing Arts with Barbican Centre, Cal Performances at UC Berkeley and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Tour Management Askonas Holt agency, UK (Opera Lively has worked with this agency numerous times for our interviews; we are thankful to them).

    November 6 and 7, 2014 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Memorial Hall. This review is of the November 7 performance.

    The show, presented first at the Barbican in London, UK, is going next to San Francisco (University of California Berkeley - November 14-15; tickets [here]), and is coming from New York City (Lincoln Center - White Light Festival at Synod House, Cathedral St. John the Divine, October 30 and 31, Nov 1)

    The Britten Sinfonia chamber ensemble had these instrumentalists:

    Karen Jones, flute
    Clare Finnimore, viola
    Hugh Webb, harp
    Richard Wainwright, horn
    Scott Bywater, percussion
    Ben Russell, double bass
    Martin Fitzpatrick, chamber organ

    ----------------

    The Work

    Curlew River is a stupendous work. It is a church parable but in many ways it is rather indistinguishable from an opera (just like some Handel oratorios are staged as operas, or Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust).

    Stylistically, Curlew River is very similar to Britten's great operas Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice (I love both) in its themes of death and despair, but it is also very peculiar since it is a fusion of medieval English liturgical drama with contemporaneous Japanese Noh theatre of the 15th-16th centuries. The general topic (about a madwoman who is an outsider looking for her lost son) is also seen in other great Britten works featuring outcasts like Billy Budd and Peter Grimes. The principal role of the madwoman was written for Britten's partner Peter Pears. Just like in Japanese theater, all four roles regardless of gender are performed by men, and singers are accompanied on stage by a small ensemble of instrumentalists.

    A short synopsis: The madwoman is traversing the river of the title, looking for her son who has been missing for a year; during the traversy she is told that one year ago, a child was left to die on the banks of the river. She realizes that the dead boy was her son. She grieves at his tomb, with the villagers. His spirit appears to reassure her, and then her madness is lifted. There is only one act, with a duration of 71 minutes.

    The work is part of the trilogy of Britten's Church Parables (together with The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son). It uses leitmotifs of sorts, or rather, instrumental markings for the characters: the flute represents the Madwoman, and the horn represents the Ferryman.

    It is composed in the heterophonic system, characterized by unsynchronized layers of melody, to harrowing effect. The peculiar "Curlew Sign" occurs when a musician sustains a note until another musical line reaches it, so that it is all re-synchronized again. The work is not to be performed with a conductor - different instruments will conduct at times, which is marked on the score, so that subsets of the orchestra play different melodic lines, an effect that recovers what is done in Noh Japanese theater with the Nobayashi ensemble. This is exotic and thrilling music, my friends.

    We can hear the heterophonic technique, for example, after the prelude and the entrance of the Abbott, when the opening theme is playing in unison by all instruments, but each line is slightly delayed to create an eerie echo-like effect. Britten uses seven instruments only (if we count the percussions as one - actually we have 5 small untuned drums, 5 small bells, and 1 large tuned gong), and they are on stage, on the right side of the action.

    Curlew River is sung in English but with parts in Latin, such as the hymn Te lucis ante terminum, which opens and closes the work. It's been released on DECCA CD with Peter Pears in the principal role. You can get it from Amazon on CD and mp3 download (the latter for only $9) by clicking [here].

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    In his 1956 stay in Japan, Britten and Peter Pears attended on February 11 the Noh play Sumidagawa (Sumida River), by Motomasa (1395–1431). Britten was very impressed and had an epiphany. He was so moved by the history of that madwoman looking for her son, that he asked to see the play again the day he was leaving Japan. Two years later he said in an interview: "I count [the performance of Sumidagawa] among the greatest theatrical experiences of my life. ... The deep solemnity and selflessness of the acting, the perfect shaping of the drama like a great Greek tragedy coupled with the ... universality of the story is something which every Western artist can learn from."

    Britten then attempted to bridge the distance between the East and the West, when he sat down to compose Curlew River. We can hear Japanese motives in the music, and although the composer used Western instruments, he tried to mimic the sounds of the sho (a mouth organ) with his church organ. The tremolando of the drums evokes the use of drums in the genre gagaku, the Japanese court music. The libretto itself recovers the notion: there is constant mention that the river is in-between two worlds: "Between two kingdoms the river flows; on this side, the land of the West, and the other, the Eastern ferns."

    Like in other Britten works (such as Peter Grimes with its harsh recitatives and its tuneful interludes), fragmented sounds depicting the madness of the woman in her grief and despair alternate with extremely melodious stretches in the church hymns. There is a long declamatory part when the Ferryman is telling the story of the dead boy, while by silent acting the Madwoman indicates to the audience that realization is downing in her that the boy who died was her lost son. This is an extremely pungent and touching moment that brings the audience to tears - it is well known that the pain a parent experiences when losing a child is arguably the deepest a human being can feel.

    In summary, Curlew River is a seriously beautiful and powerful work, with a haunting and ethereal quality that will linger in my ears for a long time, not to forget the incredible emotional impact.

    The work exists in full on YouTube, in a 1998 production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival (with French subtitles but they only show partially - top of the letters only - I can still read them - I can't vouch for this production; I haven't seen it yet, but here is the link if people want to explore the music):



    This interesting essay on pdf contains musical examples from the score; click [here] to consult it.

    The Performance

    Our metropolitan area is lucky that UNC Memorial Hall is one of the few venues included in the American tour of London's Barbican Centre's acclaimed co-production of Curlew River (our own Carolina Performing Arts co-produced this show with the Barbican, UC Berkeley, and the Lincoln Center). Once more Carolina Performing Arts spoils the local public with an outstanding show.

    We are in the presence of greatness. In the all-British cast (except for the boy treble who hails from California), we have legendary tenor Ian Bostridge, who delivered tonight a goose-bumping performance for the ages, which is likely to be the highlight of my 2014-2015 season. I had the privilege of meeting the great singer backstage, and chatting with him a bit. Mr. Bostridge has won every prize imaginable with his extensive discography of 36 items and counting, including some Grammys among his 13 nominations. He is not only an outstanding singer but also a respected music scholar and professor at Oxford University, with extensive publications in specialized journals, and he is the author of a book called "A Singer's Notebook," with another one in preparation called "Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession."

    Mr. Bostridge is a slim man who looked diminutive on stage, until he opened his mouth. His voice is much more powerful than his figure indicates, and he possesses the agility and range required by this difficult vocal score. Acting is another one of his strengths, and he was thoroughly convincing as the Madwoman, with perfect rendition of her pain and despair.

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    Ian Bostridge as The Madwoman, photo credit Mark Allan, fair promotional use

    Glen Rivers from The Huffington Post said the following about the tenor:

    "I was moved to tears by the sheer depth, the poignancy, the quality of Bostridge's Madwoman. Maybe his voice is mellowing with age, growing warmer, maybe it was also the space or the character he portrayed, but his performance was earth-shattering; one of the greatest operatic performances I've ever seen."
    I must say, I concur. And it wasn't just Ian. All three singers in the other main roles were phenomenally good, as much as the instrumentalists and the chorus. The evening couldn't be any better from the musical standpoint.

    Jeremy White, the Abbot, an Oxford-educated bass, has appeared at Covent Garden each season since 1991, and was featured numerous times in other prestigious companies such as the Met, ENO, and La Scala. I very much enjoyed his secure instrument with a narrow vibrato and very imposing resonance.

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    Jeremy White as The Abbot, photo credit Mark Allan, fair promotional use

    Londonian baritone Mark Stone was a perfect Ferryman. Curlew River, in addition to the principal role of the Madwoman, requires a great Ferryman to work well, since this is actually a more extensive role although with less difficult music than the Madwoman's. The Ferryman while sympathetic at times, is confrontational at others, and the character comes across as very strong-willed. The singer must match this forceful delivery and must switch rapidly to different states of mind by acting with his voice. Mr. Stone passed all that with flying colors. This was one impressive baritone performance. One could feel the power of his voice, almost shaking the theater. He is a favorite of the ENO and hey, don't miss him, he actually does cross the pond: he performs quite frequently with Opera Philadelphia, and has appeared in Santa Fe as well.

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    Mark Stone as The Ferryman, photo credit Mark Allan, fair promotional use

    Neal Davies got King's College training and won the Cardiff Singer of the Year competition. His discography with 11 items includes a Gramophone Award. Also a regular at Covent Garden and ENO, he has numerous performances under his belt at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. His tessitura sits a bit higher than Stone's which is very appropriate for this anxious character The Traveler.

    So, dear readers, as you can see, we got spoiled with a cast entirely made of world-class singers. The very small part of the Spirit of The Boy was well executed by Californian boy David Schneidinger.

    And the staging, oh! What a thing of beauty! This was really exquisite blocking with the solemn movement of the chorus lining up on the left side, then moving to the right, turning to the back of the stage when the spirit of the boy appears, facing the Madwoman sympathetically as she weeps, changing clothes from the monks habits to the river-crossing folks' attire and vice-versa, being silhouetted by back light on the sail of the boat... simply perfect. Netia Jones' direction wasn't good only because of the blocking and acting, but also in the visual aspects of the show, with the phenomenally beautiful projections on the sails (a diamond-shaped one starts the show, then a larger square one is lifted and images of shimmering water are produced, while Britten's score has shimmering sounds from the harp and the flute; aw, so beautiful... The white birds in the projections dance around the Madwoman (gulls are mentioned in the libretto) and the gray plumage of the curlews of the title is recovered on the floor of the stage, with the lighting - yep, very good lighting. Costumes were nice too. The final image of the boy in the projections playing with the red ribbon that his mother kept as a souvenir is sad, touching, and gorgeous. This is not just a good staging: it is sophisticated work of the highest possible quality.

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    Neal Davies as The Traveler, with his back to the camera, photo credit Mark Allan, fair promotional use

    As expected, the public went delirious in a prolonged standing ovation. To top it all, hospitality from the Carolina Performance Arts was perfect, with the good help provided to Opera Lively by Mark Nelson, Director of Marketing and Communications.

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    From left to right, Jeremy White, Mark Stone, Ian Bostridge, and Neal Davies; photo credit Opera Lively.

    Time for the verdict: this production was flawless, from both the musical and theatrical standpoints. It easily earns our highest rating, A++, very highly recommended. The public in California *must* attend this.

    Here is the link to tickets for the next run: the show stops next in San Francisco on November 14 and 15 at Cal Performances - click [here].

    The only downside is that this is my third live operatic performance of the season with some 27 more to go, and it will likely only go downhill from now, since this one is sort of impossible to match, and even more impossible to beat. I said so to Ian Bostridge backstage, and he received this praise with a very pleased smile.

    The only real criticism I'd make is the lack of projected supertitles (I don't know if this will be the case in San Francisco as well). Even for native speakers, operatically sung English is not easy to understand, which brings down a notch the emotional impact of this tragedy, given that the public can't follow the poetic libretto. The house did provide the patrons with a printed copy of the libretto, but the auditorium was too dark to read from it. This minor flaw (which didn't bother me as much because I was very familiar with the extended synopsis so it was easy to follow the action - then I read the full libretto after the show, remembering each scene) is not enough to decrease the rating from the maximum A++, since in our rules for the ratings we do anticipate that productions won't ever be perfect in live theater, so that up to just a couple of flaws, they still do not disqualify an otherwise sublime show from the highest note.

    ----------

    What is up for me next, this season:

    So far so good; I saw a very nice Nabucco at Opera Carolina, an outstanding Madama Butterfly at Piedmont Opera, and this simply exquisite show by this itinerant Barbican Centre crew and cast. I look forward to my next live shows: La Bohème at Washington National Opera one week from today with our dear former Opera Lively interviewee Saimir Pirgu (and an in-person interview with his co-performer, the beautiful Alyson Cambridge), then one day later The Dialogues of the Carmelites in concert with the Winston-Salem Symphony with our interviewees Sarah Jane McMahon and Jill Gardner, then also starting one day later, a mini-marathon of three consecutive Met performances: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich (both will be interviewed), Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Isabel Leonard, Larry Brownlee, and Chris Maltman (Isabel and Chris will be interviewed) and another La Bohème (formerly with Kristine Opolais with whom an interview was requested but she dropped out of the show; now with Sonya Yoncheva, also with Ramon Vargas and John Del Carlo): five operas in six days with great casts, in three different cities - but somehow, even though I have high expectations for these shows that should be good, I have my doubts that I'll see something as thrilling as this Curlew River, this season.

    ------------

    Watch a 5-minute video clip with Mr. Bostridge introducing the show and with visual and musical fragments (film credit Sidd Khajuria).:



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