It took a global village to sponsor and present what is probably Benjamin Britten‘s least known opera, Curlew River. While this presentation took place at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this was a co-production of Carolina Performing Arts; the Barbican Centre, London; CalPerformances, Berkeley, and Lincoln Center. “Opera” is not the most apt description for this otherworldly, austere musical meditation. Its subtitle is “A Parable for Church Performance,” and it is described in the program as “Britten’s Dramatic Homage to the Japanese Noh Play.” Both of these descriptors represent an accurate description and warning, as it were, that some background – and even study – would greatly enhance one’s enjoyment and appreciation of Curlew River. A lengthy essay and synopsis by Christopher Cook, included in the program, greatly facilitated this.

During a visit to Japan in 1956, along with his partner Peter Pears, Britten experienced Sumidagawa, a play in the ancient Noh tradition, and was greatly moved by this story of a madwoman searching for her son who had been abducted a year before. It was clear that Western audiences would not tolerate what seemed like intolerable stretches of actors sitting still and silent, yet he still wanted to preserve one of the purposes of Noh: to “move profoundly and ultimately to transcend the particular and touch the very springs of human emotion.” Light Italian opera this would not be. The libretto was set by poet William Plomer, and Curlew River premiered in Suffolk, England in June, 1964.

Curlew is the first of three church parables (an instructive lesson or principle) that Britten wrote and, as expected, this is not a work filled with humor or anything that can even remotely be considered lighthearted. The somber and ascetic “action” commences with a group of monks and an Abbot processing into a church while intoning plainchant. The Abbot, the Ferryman, a Traveler, and the Madwoman break off from the group, the other pilgrims sit as a kind of Greek chorus and the story begins. Basically, the Madwoman has lost her son the year prior and comes across the Ferryman taking passengers across a river for a commemoration of that boy, although they didn’t know at the time the boy was the Madwoman’s abducted son.

All of the parts are played and sung by men. The internationally renowned tenor Ian Bostridge – best known as a specialist in Lieder – played the Madwoman with the appropriate amount of anguish before it could cross over to maudlin. Mark Stone was a powerful presence as The Ferryman with a voice that could have been heard on Franklin Street if the doors had been open. Jeremy White was the Abbot, and Neal Davies sang the part of the Traveler. The set is stark but quite atmospheric. Stage left is a large crucifix which is, at times, hidden by a screen displaying some abstract images and that, with great effect, enlarges to show the perspective of a ferry crossing water. Stage right, at the rear, is the marvelous six-member ensemble from the Britten Sinfonia under the direction of Martin Fitzpatrick, who also played an organ-like instrument. The ensemble included Karen Jones, flute, Clare Finnimore, viola, Hugh Webb, harp, Richard Wainwright, horn, Scott Bywater, percussion, and Ben Russell, double bass. Britten’s writing is spare and rarely employs all players at once. The music, quite often tinged with Japanese-sounding timbres, can be virtuosic and was always played with great skill and intimacy. Actually, I found the instrumental writing much more interesting than the vocal lines, so much so that except for the excellent choruses (especially the finale), there were moments I would have been just as satisfied with a spoken text.

The brief appearance near the end when the boy sang with an angelic soprano voice was both chilling and comforting to the Madwoman as it showed her that his spirit was safe. The pilgrims/chorus re-robed and solemnly exited the stage but you saw them shadowed behind the screen.

You certainly won’t leave Curlew River with any tune stuck in your head or even any memorable lines (all the singers had impeccable diction and were clearly understood), but Britten did indeed succeed – in a mere 70 minutes – in replicating at least some of the ideals of an ancient Japanese culture. The shadows and light (not a hint of color) gave one a sense of both conflict and peace. Succumb to the unique magic and foreignness of it all!

Curlew River will be repeated in the same venue on November 7. For details, see the sidebar.

P.S. A performance filmed in France (but sung in English) in 1998 in on YouTube here.