Thursday, 4 July 2013

Curlew River

Mahogany Opera - Britten: Curlew River
Mahogany Opera is touring their new productions of Britten's Church Parables and brought them to Southwark Cathedral as part of the City of London Festival. I caught Frederic Wake-Walker's production of Curlew River on Wednesday 3 July 2013, with Lukas Jakobski, Rodney Earl Clarke, Samuel Evans and James Gilchrist, with the Aurora Orchestra and Roger Vignoles as musical director. 

Britten's church parable, Curlew River, was premiered by the English Opera Group in 1964 at Orford Church. The plot is based on a Japanese Noh play which Britten saw in Japan in 1956, though William Plomer's libretto re-casts the work into an English fenland setting. There is no conductor for the work, just five instrumentalists who follow each other. Britten used this to introduce an element of heterophony into the piece and in fact the sense of multiple tempi and multiple things happening at once permeates the work. The piece is unlike anything that Britten had written so far, and we can no longer recreate the sense of wonder that the work must have generated when first performed. But Frederic Wake-Walker and his cast made the piece seem somehow newly minted.

Frederic Wake-Walker's productions of the three Church Parables debuted last month (though Curlew River is based on a production the company did a few years ago) and Mahogany Opera are touring all three Church Parables performing them as a triptych spread over two evening (they will be performing them at the Buxton Festival next week). As such, Wake-Walker's production was not site specific. All the action took place high on a platform at the crossing of the nave, giving a good view of the action even in my seat towards the rear of the nave. Britten's instructions were followed, so that the cast and instrumentalists processed in and out dressed as monks and singing the Latin Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum.

Britten designed the piece for church performance, so it is probably unfair of me to complain but in an acoustic as big as Southwark Cathedral the cast's words did rather evaporate. All worked hard, and both James Gilchrist and Rodney Earl Clarke did manage to get some words over, but I found that much of the text disappeared. This was clearly a function of the building, because D. who was sitting at the rear of one of the transepts found it entirely comprehensible.

Wake-Walker's production (designed by Kitty Callister with lighting by Ben Payne) was now where near naturalistic and used a great deal of stylised movement. The movement language used, with a lot of frozen gesture and co-ordinated movement, seemed to recall the piece's Japanese origins but Wake-Walker and his cast made it seem a natural complement to Britten's sometimes austere music. The result was expressive and highly evocative, it was also easy to read when watching from the back of Southwark Cathedral's nave!

Lukas Jakobski made a strong Abbot with a beautifully mellifluous voice though, as I have said, I could not follow a word that he was singing. Samuel Evans, making an entry from the back of the nave, was a striking Traveller and Rodney Earl Clarke was the Ferryman, a truly essential component in the drama. James Gilchrist's performance as the Madwoman was astonishing and mesmerising, from his very first lamenting cries from the back of the nave. It was a shame that the costume, with its heavily stylised veil, meant that we couldn't actually see Gilchrist's face, but his use of his voice was wonderfully expressive.

The denouement, when the spirit of the Madwoman's son returns to comfort her, was simply but extremely effectively done and beautifully sung by William Rose. The eight men in the chorus sang Britten's lines with flexibility and nicely co-ordinated the stylised movements required of them.

The small instrumental group from the Aurora Orchestra with Roger Vignoles playing the organ, brought flexibility to the instrumental contribution.


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