Thursday, 14 November 2013

Barbican Britten Curlew River tonight

The excellent Barbican Britten series continues tonight with Curlew St Giles, Cripplegate (repeat performances til Saturday).  Of all Britten's operas, Curlew River used to frighten me most because it's so raw and painful. And so alien, musically, operating on two different levels.  It's not comfortable, but that's exactly why it's Great Britten.

The Madwoman has been driven insane by grief: but is she a woman at all ? Could she be an extension of an artist, driven mad by the loss of beauty? What hits me about this opera is the extreme sense of anxiety which isn't really resolved by the ending. Tha Madwoman's search seems metaphysical. Curlew River feels claustrophobic. At night, when the mists roll in at Aldeburgh, the reed beds can feel overwhelming: You could lose your sense of direction on all levels: the very ground shifts and moves on the water. As Aschenbach sings in Death in Venice, could the gondolier be the ferryman on the River Styx? The parallels between Curlew River and Death in Venice are very strong. The waters bring people together but that very communication means death. Cholera, in Venice, mindless cruelty on Curlew River. For me, both operas are now the key to "inner" Britten, in which the composer comes very close to revealing his private fears and his mission as an artist.

In Curlew River, Britten connected the formalism of Japanese theatre with the rituals of Catholic liturgical music. Neither form was populist, both the esoteric preserve of an educated minority. Yet Britten, with his passionate belief in communication and in the community, also incorporated elements of medieval mystery plays, where complex ideas were expressed in simplified form. The characters in Curlew River are larger than life, almost symbolist archetypes, and the music they have to sing is extreme. Nowadays. we're so used to naturalism in film and theatre that we forget how recently it took hold.  By eschewing naturalism, Britten connects Curlew River to much more ancient traditions. The stylized ritual also serves as a an emotional mask, distancing the artists from his audiences. This reticence can be offputting, Britten isn't touchy-feely. But his emotions are so intense that they have to be faced obliquely, as if through a mask.

Yoshi Oida has directed both Curlew River and Death in Venice. His productions are outstanding because they deal with the inner ideas of each piece. His Death in Venice incorporated the walls of The Maltings Theatre at Snape, merging art with reality. Besides, Venice does look like that when you're in a gondola. It's not grand palaces but dark, smelly water. The whole point of the opera is that luxury is illusion, like rouge on an old man. Deborah Warner's Death in Venice turned Britten into glossy fashion photoshoot: It was Regie at its worst, but adored by audiences who don't care about music or ideas. Oida's Curlew River, also created for Aix-en-Provence, creates the boat as cosmic crucible, an island surrounded by real water. Nerve wracking tension, but also great beauty.

This Summer, I heard Curlew River at Orford Church, where Britten himself supervised the first performance. Read my review HERE. Frederic Wake Walker brought out levels in the piece most people miss. Orford Church was vandalized in the Reformation. Many other churches were destroyed by violent mobs, jealous of the culture and values medieval learning represented. The Boy in Curlew river is a nobleman's son, the last of his aristocratic line. He's stolen and left to die by a mindless brute.  We should wail with the Madwoman at the annihilation of beauty and art.  One-dimensional, productions like the ENO Death in Venice and the ETO Rape of Lucretia emasculate Britten, turning his difficult, quirky complexity into popular product.  Maybe the public prefer Britten castrated? I think of the ravaged ruins around Aldeburgh, and weep.

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