The Curlew River runs fast among the fens, dividing East from West, person from person. So goes the description in Benjamin Britten’s stirring little opera, “Curlew River.” Part medieval mystery play, part Noh drama (the libretto, by William Plomer, was taken from a 15th-century Japanese tale), it has the power to transform in just a little over an hour. One can understand how these entertaining performances, presented in towns and villages centuries ago by itinerant troupes of players, changed the lives of the audience. Theater in its purest form.
The story is simple. A mad noblewoman (the world-famous British tenor Ian Bostridge) seeks her son, abducted from her estate more than a year earlier and, she fears, sold as a slave. Deranged by grief, she begs passage on a ferry going from West, where she has journeyed from her home, to East, where she heard the boy has been taken. We meet the Ferryman (bass-baritone Mark Stone), who mocks her at first, and a weary Traveller (bass Neil Davies), who intercedes on her behalf. They all board the boat and, on the way, the Ferryman tells a story about a boy who died on the opposite shore just a year ago that day and is venerated by the townspeople. He was the Madwoman’s son, and she is taken to his grave. As she mourns, a miracle happens. The boy appears in a vision. He is not brought back to life but the mother is. Her madness is cured and, giving praise, the passengers, transformed by hooded cloaks, become monks, processing offstage as they came in.
Simple but complex. Director Netia Jones and lighting designer Ian Scott have created an interplay of light and shadow, darkness and the bright. A sailboat, outlined on a rear screen, is topped by a cross, also serving as the mast. Latin plainchant combines with Japanese touches, a harp that sounds like a koto and percussive drumbeats. As the monks file in and out, the stones under their feet crunch and that too is part of the music. Although this is not “Peter Grimes,” there is much water imagery and boat paraphernalia both in the score and on the projected video screen (images also by Jones). It is as if three worlds have intertwined: the medieval British, the Japanese and contemporary technology.
The male voices (with augmentation from members of the Pacific Boychoir Academy) of the Britten Sinfonia are superb, as is the Britten Sinfonia orchestra, six players under music director Martin Fitzpatrick. Additional soloists include the powerful baritone Jeremy White as the Abbot and David Schneidinger as the spirit of the Boy. But, despite all the surrounding talent, the evening belongs to Bostridge’s Madwoman and her ineffable grief.
The presentation of this little-seen work is a co-production of Berkeley’s Cal Performances, the Barbican Centre in London, Lincoln Center and Carolina Performing Arts, and it is a laudable achievement. With only one caveat. There is a complete libretto in the program and, while useful after the fact, it is not enough. The voices are often hard to understand and supertitles, while subtracting from the mysterious ambiance of the piece, would have been helpful. It is one bit of technology that, although possibly eliminated for aesthetic reasons, was sorely missed.