Friday, 15 November 2013

Barbican Britten Curlew River Bostridge review

Perhaps if I hadn't been looking forward so much to the Barbican Britten Curlew River, I would have been less disappointed. Tradition dictates that Curlew River should be done in a church because that's how it was first done in Britten's time. But what counts above all else is artistic merit.  If this had been a concert staging, in the Barbican Hall or Barbican Theatre, this Curlew River might have worked. St Giles Cripplegate is just all wrong for this. It's the wrong period, for one thing, its late Reformation and Puritan connections unsympathetic to the mysticism of the early Dark Ages fens, where being a Christian was something to be remarked upon. As a work of art, Curlew River is strong enough to make a powerful impact on its own terms, without needing a specific setting.

The physical constraints of St Giles don't make for good theatre. The nave became an extended stage,. Netia Jones's film projections were good, their monochrome starkness appropriate for the piece, but their impact was  spoiled because they could only be seen in full by the orchestra. Sightlines were blocked by pillars. The audience was crammed into the margins of the building. Perhaps one should not feel comfortable in Curlew River, but neither should the experience be penitential. Stages are usually horizontal for a very good reason. The Procession is important to the meaning of this piece,. Though the monks did walk down the nave,  they were kept busy changing their clothes while the Britten Sinfonia played. While the monks do become protagonists in the drama, this re-costuming is a clumsy misuse of space.

Fortunately, when Ian Bostridge started to sing, the drama at last began to kick in. The Madwoman is sneered at because, in her extreme grief, she has lost all conventional decorum. She''s an aristocrat but wanders alone in the wilds, wailing. Her speech is too "high born", too alien for the Fensmen. For me, this is critical to interpretation because the Madwoman is an outsider, a refined person of taste, driven to behave in extremes by the loss of her son, her pride and joy. Bostridge sings the part with all its contortions, fragments and wayward swoops, but does the staging show him trying to knit while he sits on the ferry?  She's no ordinary Mum. After the Madwoman hears the story of the Boy and his death, Bostridge's voice became firm, with almost demonic force. For all we know,  the Madwoman conjures up the vision of the Boy in her mind? Bostridge's purposeful singing suggests that she does have that kind of creative strength. Bostridge was  relatively restrained, considering what he could do with the part, given the right staging, but this bland directing was not the occasion. .No doubt the Madwoman finds peace hearing that the dead will rise. But why do the river people treat the Boy as a saint and giver of miracles?  The plaintive cry of the curlew recurs, suggesting primitive animist mysteries, and the "Japanese" cadences suggest alien worlds where western doctrine has no meaning. There is a lot more to Curlew River than straightforward Christianity.

Mark Stone sang the down-to earth Ferryman  and Neal Davies the Traveller, like the Madwoman, an outsider from places beyond. Gwynne Howell sang the Abbot, grown weary with experience, and Duncan Tarboton sang the Boy, as youthful as the Abbot is old.  William Lacey directed the Britten Sinfonia. Unfortunately, St Giles is perpendicular, so voices are funnelled upwards and muffled. Only Bostridge, right in the middle of the nave was fully audible. With a cast as good as this, it was a waste of good singers.

More thoughts : fomal ritual is central to the interpretation. In the original production Britten supervised, the ,monlks worte masks, the way Noh actors did.  It intensifies the surreal emotional distance so important to the piece. If Britten was writing "naturalistric" why then the use of Japanese form and cadences ? Why not simply writre it like Waly Waly ? Perhaps audiences prefer Britten minus his music.. It's sad that this anniversary years should be taught to disregard the music. If German directors tr8ed this, audiences would scream "Regie!"

More on Benjamin Britten on this site than only any other non specialist site. Please explore ! For Curlew River please read here and here. For Netia Jones please read here and here. (Knussen's Sendak operas, Jones's best work to date. This Curlew River,was an amateurish, superficial  Sunday School homily in comparison. See also the comment below. The Barbican should be professional enough to look after its customers properly.

1 comment:

Roger Thomas said...

Yes, the audience did more processing than the monks. Having been advised in a pre-performance email from the Barbican:: "Seating is unreserved, please arrive early if you wish to ensure you have a particular seat.", lots of the audience did just that, including the usual proportion of semi-disabled. What the Barbican hadn't advised in its email was that we would not be admitted until half an hour before the performance began. It was one of hte first of the chilly evenings. The Barbican ushers outside were cheerful and polite in the face of our protests --- but as one of them said, "we are only following orders". Perhaps a phone call to one of their liine managers might have got us in a little earlier.