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'Curlew River' cuts lasting impression

Monday, May 26, 1997

Post and Courier reviewer

     Spoleto Festival USA's second operatic offering was Benjamin Britten's rarely performed "Curlew River."
     It opened Sunday night to a full house full of misty stage fog inside the Circular Congregational Church, with monks processing and chanting plainsong.
     It ended with a well-deserved standing ovation and well-earned bravos.
     Britten preferred to call "Curlew River" a parable for church performance (the first of three he was to write).
     Based on a Japanese Noh play "Sumida-gawa" (Sumida River) by Juro Motomasa (15th century), "Curlew River" was set by Britten and his librettist William Plomer in the fen country of Medieval East Anglia. It has an all-male cast, as do Noh plays and Medieval mystery plays.
     Director Ping Chong's common ground setting, adding even more than Britten and Plomer to the convergence of East and West, creates intense dramatic music theater.
CURLEW RIVER: directed by Ping Chong; musical direction by Joseph Flummerfelt; set design by Paul Weimer; costume design by Stefani Mar and lighting design by John McLain; at the Circular Congregational Church, at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sunday, June 2 and 6.
THE CAST: Madwoman- Peter Kazaras
Ferryman - Perry Ward
Traveler - Steven Mortier
Abbot/Chorus Leader - Rodney Briscoe
Spirit of the Boy - Josh Strickland

     The very severe and stylized classical acting of the Noh and theimaginative costumes (Japanese and Medieval and Renaissance European) merged uniquely with Britten's sparse orchestration and single and multiple melodic lines based on linear elements.
     In fact, it is Britten's music that elevates this simple story, about a madwoman seeking her lost son, above the usual.
     Peter Kazaras' clear, direct tenor was imposing as the Madwoman, following Britten's almost impossibly slow pace. Perry Ward gave the role of The Ferryman who takes people across the Curlew River a heft and presence with a rich baritone that was both ominous and sympathetic.
     Baritone Steven Mortier's Traveler was outstanding and firm. Rodney Briscoe, baritone, was consistently distinctive as The Abbott and leader of the chorus. As the Spirit of the Boy, Josh Strickland's angelic treble simply transported the moment.
     The members of the Westminster Choir who sang the roles of the Chorus of Pilgrims were extraordinary.
     There was no conductor, but music direction was by Joseph Flummerfelt. He shaped the seven instrumentalists, not to mention the singers, into one unified, self-directing force of energy.
     Britten identified instruments with the characters. The Ferryman was represented by the horn (Mollie Pate) and the viola (Mark Butin), the Madwoman by the flute (Meldi Arkinstall) and the Traveler by the harp (Laura Sherman) and double bass (Irving Steinberg).
     In addition, there was percussion (five untuned drums and some bells) expertly executed by Richard Graber and an organ played with underlying impact by Nancianne Parrella.
     They were able to catch Britten's quirky mix of Balinese, Japanese and Western music like they had been playing it all their lives.
     John McLain's unobtrusive lighting enhanced the theatrical effect. Stefani Mar's costumes were brilliant in their simplicity or complexity, mirroring the varying dimensions of the script. Paul Weimer's set design was basic, as called for.
     The play is gloomy, close to a Greek tragedy, inexorable in its movement to final catharsis.
     But by placing the play in the Medieval tradition of liturgical drama, and within the framework of processional and recessional plainsong, Britten and Plomer were able to get beyond the despair and melancholy of the Madwoman weeping without comfort at the end of the Noh play and provide for her salvation and grace.
     "Curlew River," like Berg's "Wozzeck," is not easy going. There aren't any tunes here to hum after you leave the performance. But it is great theater that puts an imprint on your brain that you can't easily forget.


Copyright © 1997 Charleston.Net. All Rights Reserved. 'Curlew River' a fine jewel Robert Jones - Spoleto Today - Charleston, S.C. - The Post and Courier
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'Curlew River' a fine jewel

Tuesday, May 27, 1997

     Composers have always been fascinated by other cultures. Europeans wrote operas about India, China, Japan, even the moon. Most of these, though, made little attempt to reflect the actual musical cultures one might expect to find in such places. Not until the Paris Exposition in the late 1880s, when a troupe of gamelan players delighted such musicians as Claude Debussy, did composers begin to make a serious attempt to absorb exotic music and make it a part of their own vocabularies.
     With the growing availability of sound recordings in this century, exoticism began to invade the world's music in full strength. Some famous works suffered when it happened (it's now hard to do anything other than smile at Bizet's idea of flamenco music in "Carmen" when every corner record store has films and CDs of the real thing). Mostly, though, the world is richer for people who have found inspiration in the world's more unexpected corners.
     One of those was England's Benjamin Britten, who visited Japan in 1955 and heard music in Turkey, Indian, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. He and tenor Peter Pears, his companion, both were struck with the stylized beauties of Noh-play, particularly one called "Sumidagawa." This particular tale had to do with a woman whose child has been kidnapped and who has gone mad with grief.
     Wandering mindlessly, she comes to the banks of a river and pleads to be taken across. After some taunting, the ferryman lets her come aboard and then tells her about a mysterious child who had died on this same day the year before. The child had been kidnapped, taken ill and abandoned. It had died and was buried near the river. Ever since, miraculous healings have been reported and the place has become a place of pilgrimage. Recognizing the subject of the story as her own son, the madwoman weeps.
     Britten moved the setting to medieval East Anglia near the Curlew River, substituted a Christian context for the original, and added a cathartic ending: the woman weeps, as in the original, but now is comforted by a spirit of her son, who appears and cures her of her madness.
     Britten framed the whole as if it were a church miracle play. The 7-piece orchestra was made up of musicians robed as monks, and the play was introduced by a procession of monks and a short explanation from an abbot about the moral lesson to be learned from the play to be enacted.
     With solemn ceremony, the monks dress three of their group as the leading characters (the Ferryman, a Traveler, the Madwoman), then enact the parable. The spirit of the boy appears at the end, singing his benediction, then vanishes. The monks resume their monastic attire and take their leave, singing a benediction.
     "Curlew River" is one of Britten's strangest and most haunting works. There is no attempt to ape Chinese music, but there are many striking "oriental" effects in the music. More importantly, the time frame of oriental drama governs the opera. The action is slow, unrealistic. The audience is invited to abandon theatrical preconceptions and enter Britten's own religious/musical world.
     People have tried this sort of thing before. Stravinsky comes to mind, and so does Menotti. Both composers have their detractors, as does Britten: those who dislike "Curlew River" (and its companion pieces "The Burning Fiery Furnace" and "The Prodigal Son") might well protest that the work is so elegant and artificial, it borders on the precious. The opposite point of view (which, for the record, is mine) has to admit charges of preciousness while pointing out that the piece is so beautiful that, when performed skillfully and honestly, it makes such accusations pointless.
     In producing such a work, Spoleto USA has the unmatched skills of the Westminster Choir (or at least a part of it), which filled the Circular Congregational Church with gleaming, masculine choral sound. Moreover, they looked and behaved like monks, and they executed the mass physical movements as if they all had ballet training. (One singer, by the way, was on crutches, cleverly made to look rustic, and I spent the whole hour waiting for him to be "healed" and throw them away. It was not until he finally exited, still with his injured foot, that I realized he really was injured.)
     The Madwoman was Peter Kazaras, last seen here in 1996 as Janacek's beer-soaked Mr. Broucek. Moderating his good-sized tenor, Kazaras was a deeply affecting figure. Both Perry Ward (the Ferryman) and Steven Mortier (the Traveler) were vocally and dramatically persuasive in their roles.
     In a performance so tight-knit and seamless as this one, it is hard to name the most crucial element. But I think it is probably Ping Chong, the admired avant garde director, who worked wonders with elaborate costumes and kept the scenic investiture limited to a few candles across the front of the stage.
     All told, this "Curlew River" will be remembered as a fine jewel, small but precious, in the history of Spoleto. Be glad you have a chance to treasure it.

Robert Jones can be reached by e-mail at


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This page is greatfully borrowed from the Opera Factory web pages for their 1995 production of Curlew River.


Curlew River

A brotherhood of monks sing a Gregorian chant in which they pray to God for protection from the dangers and malicious spirits of the night. The Abbot announces that the the Brothers have come to tell of a mystery which occurred beside the Curlew River.

The monks assume different roles to enact the mystery. The Ferryman explains it is the anniversary of an important local shrine. A Traveller asks for a place in the ferryboat. The Madwoman's singing is heard in the distance. When she arrives she is singing of her sad search for her lost child who was stolen from her home in the Black Mountains. The Ferryman and his passengers refuse to let her into the boat unless she entertains them with her singing. She wins her place.

As the Ferryman poles the boat he tells of a voyage a year ago to the day, when a heathen was crossing with a dying Christian boy he had abducted to sell as a slave. The Heathen left the boy to die but the river people tried to nurse him. Before dying he asked that he be buried by the path to the Chapel so that the shadows of travellers from his country might fall on his grave. The Madwoman realises the boy was her son and that her search is at an end. The Ferryman guides her to the tomb and the Spirit of the child rises briefly from the grave to tell his mother that they will meet in heaven. The Madwoman is purged of her madness by God's grace.

And he shewes me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb

Curlew River is a reworking of the Japanese No play Sumidigawa which Britten saw during a trip to Tokyo in 1956. On the libretto of Curlew River

Fully three years after Britten's trip to Japan, there had been no thought of transposing the Japanese story into an English setting. Nor was there any thought of performing it in a church, much less of Christianizing it, in spite of the fact that Britten had had considerable success with Noye's Fludde, the operatic work for church performance which was subsequently seen as a natural precursor of Curlew River. In the middle of April 1959, Britten wrote to Plomer, quite unexpectedly, beginning his letter with the words, "I rather hope that you are feeling strong and courageous when you open this letter, my dear" and saying that he had discussed the matter with Pears, and that they both believed the work should be given in one of the churches near Aldeburgh, perhaps Orford, and that it should be made into "a Christian work". Britten added "I've been very worried lest the work should seem a pastiche of a N play, which however well done would seem false and thin."

From William Plomer -
A Biography by Peter F Alexander

From Japanese Nõ Dramas by Royall Tyler All the roles in Nõ are performed by male actors. Women do study Nõ singing or dancing and may occasionally perform whole plays as amateurs, but a professional woman actor is exceedingly rare. Most plays have at least one masked role, unless the face of a mature man - the actor - is suitable for that of the main character. Actors playing feminine roles do not "impersonate" women in any obvious way, for acting in Nõ is on an entirely different plain from ordinary acting as the term is now understood. Gestures are restrained and miming highly abstract. The idea that role-type overrides the passing identity of the figure in a single play is characteristic of Nõ. To one side of the stage sits a chorus of about eight people. It has no identity of its own even when it sings lines that do not clearly belong to any single figure on stage.

The true poetry of Nõ can be extraordinarily dense and complex, even though its vocabulary is relatively restricted. In Japanese artistic practice, form generally precedes meaning. Once form is correct, appropriate content appears.

In medieval Japan, as in medieval Europe, religion coloured all of life. Religion meant Buddhism above all, but not a Buddhism with which many people are now familiar. Zen, although present in a few plays, is unimportant beside the legacy of an older, richly complex Buddhism that embraced, more or less closely, nearly every conception of the sacred held in Japan. God plays evoke a perfect world that has no need of the Buddhist teaching, since Buddhism is concerned with spiritual or psychological wholeness; in a perfect world wholeness is not lost or threatened. In other kinds of plays however one Buddhist issue is often central: attachment, or clinging, to the objects of sense and desire, and the need to renounce this clinging. Since Buddhism teaches that this clinging is a grievious error, it is called mõshu, "wrongful clinging".

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