Madwoman across the water: Bostridge intense and compelling in Britten’s unnerving “Curlew River”

Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 11:34 am
Ian Bostridge in Britten's "Curlew River," presented by Lincoln Center's  White Light Festival. Photo: Richard Termine

Ian Bostridge in Britten’s “Curlew River,” presented by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Photo: Richard Termine

The interior of the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was fogged with incense, the floor of the nave was covered with a smooth, grey, rectangular slab, bordered by a moat of stones. This is the ethereal look and feel of the new production of Benjamin Britten’s music drama Curlew River, that opened Thursday night at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival.

Co-produced with the Barbican Center in London, Carolina Performing Arts and Cal Performances Berkeley, and starring tenor Ian Bostridge as the Madwoman and baritone Mark Stone as the Ferryman, this is a beautifully thought, shaped and sung production that creates a complex, unnerving and lingering effect.

Curlew River is unique, not only in opera but in theatrical narrative. It fuses the form and meaning of Medieval miracle play with a powerful dose of the uncanny from the far more modern English ghost story tradition. It is a parable of the Madwoman, searching for her son who had been abducted by a heathen, and the Ferryman, who brings her across the Curlew river. On the way, the Ferryman tells a story about the village they are approaching, where a heathen had brought his boy slave a year earlier, only to have the child die of illness. The villagers buried the boy, and, thinking him a saint, used earth from the grave to cure their own ills.

The main feature of the stage is the ferryboat sail, and the expressive lighting, designed by Ian Scott. Even before the lights project a series of kanji characters on the slab, or before one has read the program notes from Director Netia Jones, one can discern prominent elements of Japanese culture, including Zen design and Noh theater.

This is a strength of the production, making it a physical manifestation of Britten’s score. The composer had always soaked up non-Western influences in his music, and Curlew River is an adaptation of a Noh play he saw on a trip to Japan, while the inventive music is full of explicit and subtle use of devices from gagaku music.

Britten’s version is explicitly Christian—William Plomer’s libretto sets the story itself inside the framing device of an abbot (bass Jeremy White) and his monk’s offering the tale as a sermon. The piece begins and ends in plainsong, but in between the music is spare, dramatic, freely expressive. It is also as gripping and intense as anything out of Peter Grimes, with the edge of controlled madness that one hears in Shostakovich.

There is barely any traditional homophonic accompaniment, instead the music becomes the birds the Madwoman sees as she approaches the ferry, the waves of the river lapping at the sides of the boat, the steady, building rhythms of the drama itself. The horn plays music that reveals unspoken psychology, the flute parallels the Madwoman’s voice, the organ holds down thick chords with a throbbing blue light of dissonance within, a rich pedal tone under the lyrical singing.

There are no supertitles, the theater is too dark to read the booklet libretto, but the music and the superb singing means nothing is missed. Britten was unsurpassed as a dramatic vocal composer, every word set so that the singing sounds natural and unforced, while the phrases are clear and strong in their characterization.

Curlew River is a drama where, like in Noh, nothing much seems to happen, but everything happens inside the minds and souls of the characters. That is Britten at his best.

Bostridge was at his best too. His voice is still plummy, but has little of the seraphic glow of youth. He is not less, but different, and that difference made his Madwoman earthy, unsettling, moving. He stalked the stage, singing “Let me in! Let me out!,” tossing imaginary handfuls of dirt that exploded into blotches of light on the slab. Stone was an excellent contrast, sounding like he was growling even as he sang clearly, nasty to the Madwoman, and then, seeing the tragedy, heartbroken and sympathetic.

The supporting character is the Traveller, sung solidly by bass-baritone Neal Davies. The Traveller is a stand-in for the audience, watching the proceedings, beseeching the Ferryman to take the Madwoman across the river. Boy soprano Ian Osborne was the ghost, who appears when the Madwoman is at his grave, singing to her in consolation, freeing her from her obsession. The moment, with Bostridge kneeling in front of the grave and placing the boys shirt, shoes and ribbon on it, while the ghost hovered behind, unseen, singing “Go your way in peace, mother,” had an overwhelming effect from the combination of sadness, solace and beauty.

The Britten Sinfonia Voices filled in with lovely singing as the monks, ferry passengers and townspeople. The Britten Sinfonia constituted the instrumental septet, with Martin Fitzpatrick conducting and playing the organ. There were some unsteady attacks and rhythms at first, and problematic intonation in the contrabass, but Bostridge, coming in from the wing and walking through the musicians to the slab, seemed to draw forward motion and organization in his wake, and the playing was superb for the rest of the performance.

This Curlew River is wonderful for the performances, of course, but fundamentally it is memorable and powerful due to Jones’ sympathy to the score and the concept. Along with directing, she designed the set, costumes and video. She sees inside to the pure core of the piece, and has brought out something marvelous.

Curlew River continues through November 1.

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