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Edward Evans and Peter Bray [Photo © ROH/ Tristram Kenton]
11 Jul 2013

Britten: The Canticles

First performed at this year’s Brighton Festival and originally designed for the Theatre Royal Brighton, this multi-media staging of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles by long-standing collaborators Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable, also had an outing at Snape Maltings Aldeburgh in May this year, and has now arrived on the austere stage of the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.

Britten: The Canticles

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Edward Evans and Peter Bray

Photos © ROH/ Tristram Kenton


Twenty-seven years separate the first and last Canticles and in some ways these intimate, dense narratives represent a composing life, exhibiting Britten’s stylistic preoccupations and expressive concerns at various points in his career. There are certainly musical and thematic links between the individual Canticles but, performed as a sequence, do they cohere? In a programme article, Paul Kildea finds common ground in their dramatic concentration, their ‘opulent’ poetic language, and the fact that each Canticle is dedicated, ‘in name or spirit, to one of Britten’s heroes’.

By assigning each Canticle to a different director, Bartlett and Constable perhaps make their task even more difficult; then there is the further problem that, with their varying moods and energies, when performed in sequence the Canticles do not form a naturally persuasive dramatic form.

Bartlett remarks that the Canticles ‘get a great deal out of the simplest musical resources, they excavate extraordinary and multiple levels of sense from their words’. And so they do; the rich textual imagery is translated into densely evocative music, which is why they do not need further visual accompaniment. Indeed, concrete embodiments of Britten’s musical images risk either distracting from the musical performances, or being ignored as the audience focuses inevitably on the medium which expresses the composer’s meaning most directly - especially when it is communicated through vocal and instrumental performances as powerful as those heard here.

Such problems were most apparent in the first Canticle, ‘My Beloved is Mine’, a setting of text adapted from theSong of Solomon. Written for and first performed by Peter Pears, this is a lyrical, joyful celebration of love and sexual passion. Ian Bostridge’s beautifully unfolding raptures faded sweetly into relaxed whisperings; alongside this Bartlett offered a mundane morning routine, as two men (actors Peter Bray and Edward Evans) enjoyed a demure breakfast before departing for a day in the office. Presumably Bartlett wished to suggest a natural, everyday union of the spiritual and the sexual, but the darkness which divided the stage, separating the music from its visual interpretation, embodied the huge chasm between the expressive register of the music and the mime.

Scott Graham’s balletic interpretation of the second Canticle, a retelling of the biblical father-son drama, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, was less intrusive, the tender gestures of his two dancers (Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand) forming a reserved yet affecting dramatization of the narrative as recounted and enacted by the richly blending voices of Bostridge and countertenor Iestyn Davies.

Canticles-12.gifJulius Drake and Ian Bostridge

The third Canticle, ‘Still Falls the Rain’, was accompanied by John Keane’s video illustration of the manufacture of weaponry and the carnage wrought by aerial bombardment juxtaposed with Christian iconography. The visual oppositions and associations were an apt expression of Edith Sitwell’s vehement poem with its bitter diction and insistent repetitions. Moreover, the striking visual contrasts complemented the musical antagonism of voice and horn, as Bostridge’s hesitant, lamenting ‘refrain’ meandered seemingly unaware of Richard Watkins’ eerie horn calls from afar, until the two strands united peacefully at the close. But, the images were an adjunct rather than integral; to be glanced at but not too deeply reflected upon, for it was the music which commanded one attention and shaped one’s emotions.

The fourth Canticle involved no extraneous diversions, and for this reason Constable’s presentation of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ was the most powerfully suggestive. Bostridge and Davies were joined by baritone Benedict Nelson, and the three singers, weary travellers with scuffed suitcases by their sides, reflected hauntingly on their life-journey, which has brought them not knowledge, understanding and faith, rather anxiety, incomprehension and disenchantment.

Britten returned to Eliot in the final Canticle, a setting of ‘The Death of St Narcissus’. Responding to Eliot’s lines, ‘So he became a dancer to God/ Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He danced on hot sand/ Until the arrows came’, Wendy Houstoun presented a single dancer (Dan Watson) spinning ceaselessly, as if spurred on by the troubling dissonances between Bostridge’s striving melodies and the eloquent interjections of Sally Pryce’s harp. In the final moments, harp and voice were reconciled, as the dancer’s spirals and the harp’s expansive ringing octaves faded into the oblivion of shadows.

Musically this was a stunning performance, underpinned by the intelligent, responsive piano accompaniment of Julius Drake. Singers and instrumentalists unfailingly communicated the urgent drama of each Canticle, sensitively alert to every contradiction and inference. No more was needed.

Claire Seymour

There are two further performances at the Linbury Studio, ROH, on 11th and 12th July, at 7.45pm.

Cast and production information:

Ian Bostridge: tenor; Iestyn Davies: countertenor; Benedict Nelson: baritone; Julius Drake: piano; Richard Watkins: horn; Sally Pryce: harp; Neil Bartlett: Scott Graham: John Keane: Paule Constable: Wendy Houstoun: directors; Edward Evans: Peter Bray: actors; Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand (from Ignition Physical Theatre): Dan Watson: dancers. Royal Opera House, London, Wednesday 10th July 2013.

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