Saturday night I went to see a(nother) Britten opera, Curlew River. This show was a part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Although I paid an arm and a leg for my ticket (no student prices, huh, Lincoln Center? HMMM), it was totally worth it. If you know me you know I’m obsessed with Benjamin Britten, so I wasn’t going to miss this chance to see one of his rarely performed operas.
This production of Curlew River was fantastic. As this is one of Britten’s church parables, the performance was, fittingly, in a church. The scene was set as soon as you entered the hall, with a light haze of smoke and the smell of incense hitting you right away. The audience was situated on both sides of the stage, which was a long, narrow platform running down the middle of the church. The orchestra - which was very small, consisting only of viola and bass, harp and organ, flute, horn, and percussion - sat at one end of this stage, and a screen was at the other end. The stage transforms into a ship for most of the show, and the screen acted as the sail - clever, eh?
One of the things that made this production so cool was their use of lighting. I feel like sometimes multimedia can be distracting, and detract from the overall show, but this was a perfect complement to the experience. Different things were projected onto the screen - and the stage itself - throughout the performance. These things included Japanese characters (a nod to the fact that Curlew River was inspired by Japanese Noh theater traditions), and also different lighting effects to make the stage look like water, or like a cemetery. It was simple and effective.
The musicians in the orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia, were amazing. Having played Britten’s Burning Fiery Furnace with Opera Brittenica this past spring, I know from experience how intimidating playing in such a small ensemble can be! Everything you play is exposed and important, so it’s very different from playing in a large orchestra, where very often I feel like I’m blending into the texture. They also performed it without a conductor (the keyboard player directed occasionally), which was even more impressive. The sound from this unusual instrumentation was usually very light and transparent, but also capable of a bigger, more ferocious (can you tell I like that word??) sound.
And oh yeah, the singers were fantastic too!! This opera is also unusual in the fact that all of the singers are male (this is another example of Britten’s imitation of Japanese Noh theater traditions). Ian Bostridge played the main part, the role of the Madwoman - this was the part originally sung by Peter Pears, Britten’s partner. When I listen to Britten I usually listen to the original cast, with Pears singing the lead tenor. Because he has such a unique and distinctive voice, I sometimes find it hard to like other people singing his roles. When Ian Bostridge started singing offstage, though, I just about fell out of my chair - he sounded EXACTLY like Peter Pears!! Seriously, for a second there I wondered if they were piping in a recording of Pears’ voice (or if they had raised him from the dead or something). But nope, turns out Ian Bostridge is just awesome. I have added him to my short list of tenors that I like singing Britten (which also includes Nicholas Phan, Joshua Collier, and no one else, yet). Anyone have any other suggestions??
The rest of the singers were really great, too. Usually with opera you need sub/supertitles, because it’s difficult to understand what singers are really saying, even in English. There were none for this production, but their diction was so good, I didn’t really feel like I needed them.
So happy to have heard another Britten opera - one more off my checklist! While I was at the show, I was also thinking of my friends in Opera Brittenica in Boston - they were performing their production of The Turn of the Screw on the same weekend. Congrats to everyone involved in both shows! Lots of Britten, hurrah!