Tanglewood Music Center's 'Curlew River': Spirits rise to the sun in Britten opera


LENOX -- At the end of Benjamin Britten's opera "Curlew River," the spirit of a kidnapped boy rises from the grave in answer to his grief-crazed mother's lament.

In the Tanglewood Music Center production this week, the spirit did not actually appear but his voice was heard from afar. A chorus of pilgrims and fellow mourners proclaimed the appearance a Christian mystery and proof of God's grace.

The moment -- the entire opera -- is a paraphrase of the Japanese Noh play "Sumidagawa" ("Sumida River"), in which the spirit not only appears but is taken up into the sun. As imaginative as Mark Morris' staging and the performance by music center students were, the full significance might have been lost on anyone who didn't know the play or see Tanglewood's very helpful screening of a film of it.

The miracle in the medieval Japanese play is attributed to a Buddhist god. Britten, to a libretto in English by William Plomer, set the exact story as a medieval Christian mystery play, performed in a monastery. The Sumidagawa became the Curlew River, near Britten's home in Aldeburgh, England.

The opera, performed Wednesday and Thursday nights, following the Tuesday night film, is far from your Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, or even other Britten. It is incantatory. It moves in slow motion, in ritualized, near-catatonic gestures. Though slowed down, the movement -- somewhere between acting and dance -- was akin to the trademark gestures Morris employed with his dance troupe in Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," the nightcap to this ambitious operatic double bill.

Adding to the distancing effect of the action (or lack of action), Britten's conductorless orchestra of seven instruments evokes the flute and two drums of the play. The seven players are used not as an ensemble, but individually -- a flute is prominent -- or in small combinations to suggest the whining, ritual sounds of Japanese music. Pilgrims sing as a small chorus, often in chant.

On the surface, the story is simple. A madwoman searching for her son crosses a river. During the crossing, the ferryman tells her about the death of a boy, who turns out to be her son. She finds the grave and begs for her son's return.

"Curlew River" did honor to Britten as part of the TMC's centennial commemoration (this report is based on Wednesday night). Heightening the idea of ritual purification, Morris dressed the all-male cast, the instrumentalists and the stage all in white. The madwoman, sung and acted with stately aplomb by Isaiah Bell, carried a white parasol, opening and closing it, sometimes as a fan or weapon.

The male cast followed the Japanese model. The other principal roles, also performed with grace and finesse, were taken by Edward Nelson as the ferryman, Nathan Wyatt as the abbot and David Tinervia as a traveler. Daniel Moody sang the offstage voice of the boy. The boatman carried an oar, the traveler a staff. Dead curlews were presented as an offering at the grave.

"Curlew River" is one of three "church parables" composed by Britten. Surprisingly, the madwoman's winding lines -- especially as sung by Bell, a Canadian tenor whose voice recalled that of Peter Pears, Britten's partner and favorite tenor -- often sounded close to those of Peter Grimes in that Britten opera.

But then, the whole opera, while Christian in orientation, also echoes another familiar Britten theme: the loss of innocence. The premature death of the boy, who had been captured by slavers and left to die on the river bank, echoes the persecuted Grimes' death by drowning and the haunting and death of Miles, the boy in Britten's "Turn of the Screw."

Boring? In a way. But gripping? In the end, yes.

A separate TMC cast, chorus and orchestra performed "Dido" after an intermission.

Tacking the 55-minute opera onto Britten's obsessive 70-minute tale was probably a case of too much, even if both are English tragedies about a woman. But a student cast headed by Samantha Malk and Steven Eddy sang assuredly from a balcony while Morris' dancers went through his classic choreography on the stage below. Stefan Asbury conducted stylishly, evoking a period-instrument sound in the orchestra.


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