Curlew River: Benjamin Britten’s musical drama in a new, powerful staging at Carolina Performing Arts

And you know that she’s half crazy 
But that’s why you want to be thereLeonard Cohen, “Suzanne,” 1966

We tend to think of the multi-cultural impulse in art making as being something quite recent, but, of course artists and other culture-makers have been mining the art of others forever. The 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten, for instance,  jumped the gap between Western church music and Japanese Noh drama with his 1964 Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance. It has been given a new staging by a consortium of producers: Carolina Performing Arts, teamed with CalArts Berkeley, Lincoln Center, and the Barbican Centre, London. The extraordinary visual design by Netia Jones supplements the haunting music and transportive singing. The work permeates your senses with the help of clouds of incense; it etches your heart with sorrow and hope that there might truly be solace in knowledge despite the bitterness found in the pursuit of it.

This beautiful, honest and highly unusual production repeats in UNC’s Memorial Nov. 7 at 8 p.m.

In the 1950s, Britten traveled to Japan, where he saw a performance of a Noh play (belonging to the category monoguruinoh, the drama of madness), in which a mother, mad with grief and fear, searches for her lost son. He was deeply moved, and with his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist William Plomer, began to create the work that became Curlew River. (Curlews are curved-billed shore birds that feed on things not visible from the surface, and are abundant in East Anglia, where Britten spent his youth.) Many Japanese aspects of the Madwoman’s story were anglicized, others mirror English and Christian traditions–both use symbolism, like the river and the cross(roads) that has emerged from the human psyche around the world. The river here both divides and connects worlds and their spiritual pursuits. And like a river, the music flows seamlessly between the Western and the Eastern, while the English libretto sometimes swirls into Latin ecclesiastical chants, with the occasional outburst of the more ancient Greek cry: Kyrie eleison!

Lord have mercy, indeed. Any one part of this production could flatten you. The design creates what is essentially a thrust stage that is also a projection screen. Upstage, at the end of the long pier/path/river, a simple boat form is moored–it also receives projected video and still imagery. All is black, white and shades of gray. As in the physical staging of the singers, ceaseless motion contrasts with perfect stillness. To one side the six musicians (flute, viola, harp, horn, percussion and double bass) of the Britten Sinfonia perform the exquisite score with its thrilling combinations of tones and styles and textures, while in the central area, the Britten Sinfonia Voices sing the chants and choruses. On one side of the stage area runs a path of rocks, over which the chorus crunches as they enter and leave, and on which they stand motionless when not singing. Their stillness on the uneven rocks was profoundly affecting.

Ian Bostridge, tenor, as The Madwoman in Curlew River. Photo: Mark Allan.

Ian Bostridge, tenor, as The Madwoman in Curlew River. Photo: Mark Allan.

The Madwoman is sung by tenor Ian Bostridge, whose range includes high attenuated keening but also a kind of deep howling that belies his slender frame, and which he punctuates with icily articulated demands. Our attraction to the Madwoman is only increased by Ian Scott’s bold lighting choices, which keep Bostridge’s face in shadow until nearly the end.

Mark Stone, baritone, is outstanding as the The Ferryman, very clear in his singing and commanding in his stage presence. Like all Ferrymen, he has a certain distance on the travails of all who pass his way. “What is the use of tears/Whom can your weeping help?/No, rather say a prayer/That in the other world/The soul of your child/May rest in peace.”

Jeremy White as The Abbot, and Neal Davies as The Traveler are also very fine. When 13-year-old David Schneidinger sang as the Spirit of the Boy, holy doves flew into my heart. Or perhaps they were curlews, with their instinctive knowledge of lives present but unseen.

But I think you could hear Britten’s music without the singing or the amazing visuals and still go on the same journey–the sounds propel you along a definite path through the labyrinth of emotion. Another thing that interests me about it, is that it somehow seems well-fixed in its time–50 years ago the same boundless longing gave itself voice in many kinds of music. However, none of them are out of date.


No use crying, talking to a stranger,
Naming the sorrows you’ve seen.  
Too many sad times, too many bad times,
And nobody knows what you mean.

Ah, but if somehow you could pack up your sorrows,
And give them all to me,
You would lose them, I know how to use them,
Give them all to me.

(From “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” by Richard Farina and Pauline Baez Marden, on Richard and Mimi Farina’s 1965 Vanguard album Celebrations for a Grey Day.)

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