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Britten’s Curlew River gets welcome première

A scene from Britten’s Curlew River, staged in Buenos Aires by the Lírica Lado B.
A scene from Britten’s Curlew River, staged in Buenos Aires by the Lírica Lado B.
A scene from Britten’s Curlew River, staged in Buenos Aires by the Lírica Lado B.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Lírica Lado B offers first ever staging of British composer’s parables in Buenos Aires

From 1940 until his death in 1976, the greatest British composer alive was Benjamin Britten. Although he was brilliant in many fields, perhaps his largest contribution was in opera. After the operetta Paul Bunyan (New York, 1941), he had an enormous success with Peter Grimes (London, 1945), still considered the best British opera ever and offered twice by the Colón (1979 and 1986). Then followed The Rape of Lucretia (Glyndebourne, 1946, premièred at the Colón in 1954); Albert Herring, a comedy (Glyndebourne, 1947; Colón after 1970); the charming Let’s Make an Opera, for children, Aldeburgh 1949 (offered here).

Then, a fundamental Britten still missing here; Billy Budd, on Melville (London, 1951) and also not staged yet in BA, Gloriana, on Elizabeth I, London 1953. Afterwards, The Turn of the Screw, on Henry James (Venice, 1954; BA, Coliseo, 1961); Noye’s Fludde, 1958, a one-acter on a Chester Mystery Play, which I saw some years ago in La Plata; and the marvellous A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Aldeburgh, 1960, and Colón, 1961).

And now, a great innovation: his three parables written for an Orford church with libretti by William Plomer: 1964, Curlew River; 1966, The Burning Fiery Furnace; and The Prodigal Son, 1968. (Orford is a small port close to Aldeburgh, the Suffolk fishermen village where Britten founded his Festival). It was a small parish church; the composer’s idea was to start each parable with the monks singing in Latin an old hymn (Procession) before the action, and at the end going out.

Naturally the singers are few (even those of the choir) and only a restricted instrumental ensemble can be accommodated, as the audience is limited, of course, by the proportions of the church. Was Orford chosen because Ellen Orford is the principal female character in Peter Grimes?

Of the three, Curlew River is rather special, for it is an adaptation of a Noh play. Britten recorded it in the Orford church. His programme notes tell us: “It was in Tokyo in January 1956 that I saw a Noh-drama for the first time, two different performances of the same play (Sumidagawa by Juro Montomasa). The whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, it all offered a totally new ‘operatic’ experience. Surely the medieval religious drama in England would have a comparable setting?”

Says Colin Graham, the original producer: “The emotion should never be expressed with the face or eyes but always by a rehearsed ritualistic movement of the hands, head, or body.” About the Madwoman: “There must never be any question here of female impersonation: monks are representing the characters”.

As you can see, to tackle Curlew River is a tall order, but it has been on the minds of the founders of Lírica Lado B for a long time. Readers know that although I have disagreed with many staging aspects, I have always supported their policy of premièring interesting operas since 2009 and up to 2013. Curlew River is their first 20th century choice and I certainly welcome it, for none of the parables have been presented here.

This comes after a barren year and it has some special characteristics. In a recent interview, the Musical Director Camilo Santostefano explained that Faber, Britten’s editors, helped with special conditions to have the performing materials. I was surprised by the decision to offer the performances for free and to seek funds through crowdfunding. As for the venue, it is a factory reclaimed by its workers, IMPA, in a dark 4-block-long street, Querandíes. Hardly the conventional place for the project and certainly not a church. But two matters explain the choice: it has good resonant acoustics (as Orford’s parish church) and it is huge, which allows the monks to come in procession from the far-off depths of the building. It may not be beautiful but it is functional. Nevertheless, I would have preferred a church.

The plot is absolutely simple: a mad woman searches for her lost child; the boatman tells her that he died, is considered a saint and his tomb is nearby; the spirit of the child appears and talks to the woman, appeasing her pain and restoring her reason. The music is stark and moving; after the starting hymn the story develops with achingly beautiful music for the Woman, firm and solid for the boatman, narrative for the Traveller, supported by seven completely contrasting instruments that offer strange mixtures of sound.

Pablo Pollitzer was marvellous in his Mad Woman, all expression and intensity, and Alejandro Spies was a tower of strength both physically and vocally as the Boatman. Gabriel Rabinovich (Traveller) was correct and young Max Hochmuth revealed a splendid baritone voice as the Abbot. Constanza Leone seemed a real boy and sang very purely. The seven players were very good (viola, flute, horn, bass, percussion, organ and harp), coordinated by Santostefano, and the voices of the choir were first-rate. Stage directors Diego Ernesto Rodríguez and German Ivancic tried to follow the minimalist Noh-inspired action and they mainly did it well, except for the unnecessary three dancers-acolytes. I disliked the strange contraptions added to the singers’ faces. Sober costumes and adequate lighting completed the panorama.

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