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Photo by Mahogany Opera
08 Jul 2013

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

Poised between ritual and drama, between East and West, between Zen-Buddhist symbolism and Christian medieval morality play, Britten’s three church parables pose some tricky problems — including a deliberately objectivised framing device which can distance the work from the audience, and, unusually for Britten, some less than effective musico-dramatic pacing.

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

A review by Claire Seymour

Above photo by Mahogany Opera


So, it is perhaps not surprising that the triptych is rarely performed as a unified entity.

This triple bill, performed over two nights, by Mahogany Opera directed by Frederic Wake-Walker was therefore a welcome proposition. Commencing their tour in Russia, at the Hermitage and the Church of St Catherine in St Petersburg (presumably because the former was where Britten and Pears first saw the Rembrandt painting, ‘The Prodigal Son’, which inspired the third parable), Mahogany have since visited the venue of the first production, Orford Church Aldeburgh, and will conclude their performances in Buxton in mid-July.

The long, narrow nave of Southwark Cathedral was the venue for this round of performances, as part of the City of London Festival — a suitably solemn setting, especially as these interpretations emphasised the sombre, religious gravity of the works.

Curlew River , performed on Wednesday 3rd July, transfers the narrative of the Japanese Nō play, Sumidagawa. A Noblewoman, driven made by grief when her son is kidnapped, comes to a ferry. The Ferryman refuses to take her across to the shrine on the further bank, until her despair moves him and the other pilgrims to feelings of guilt. During the journey, he relates the miracles that have occurred at the shrine, the grave of a young boy, and the Madwoman recognises that her son is the boy in these stories. Upon reaching the tomb, the mother is confronted by a vision of her child, and is relieved of her madness.

All the principals were on fine form. Samuel Evan’s Traveller’s Prayer was full of restive yearning; Rodney Earl Clarke’s Ferryman offered a moving counsel to the Madwoman to pray for her child.

But it was tenor James Gilchrist who was the musical and dramatic linchpin of these performances. From his opening, Grimes-like, fragmented cries, he was entirely in sympathy with the role of the Madwoman — and in tremendous voice, his vocal exclamations simultaneously dramatically agitated and vocally focused. The tenor soared in pitch and dynamic, at times angry, elsewhere full of doubts; this performance was an impressively controlled rendition of intense love and inner crisis.

Unfortunately, Gilchrist was draped from head to foot in an assemblage of dishevelled, grey rags which would not have disgraced a 1940s BBC ghost-costume department. Robert Tear — who was Pears’ understudy at the first performance — remembers Pears complaining, “Really, Ben, I just can’t work in this frock”, to which Ben replied to Colin Graham, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Colin, give her a crin”, but even the composer can’t have envisaged that such a clichéd visual statement of psychological distress was necessary. [1]

There was some assured playing from the small band of instruments, performing without a conductor, supported by Roger Vignoles’ well-shaped chamber organ accompaniment. Alex Jakeman’s flute flutter-tonguing perfectly complemented the unstable psyche of the Madwoman, and the glissandi and portamenti of the cadenza that accompanies her arrival at the ferry ramp, were expertly executed. The flute’s symbolic curlew cries were poignantly lyrical, and flute and voice came together affectingly during the mother’s sparse soliloquy before her son’s tomb. There was some warm, expressive playing from violist Max Baillie, and the percussive colours of the score were ably and evocatively executed by Scott Lumsdaine.

The following evening Gilchrist was similarly fine as the Lucifer-like Abbot-Tempter in The Prodigal Son, the most overtly ‘Christian’ of the three parables, and perhaps the ‘weakest’ in terms of musical concision and tightness. As the Abbot, addressing “people, listening here today”, he disturbingly intoned the disconcertingly simple modal line, “Do not think I bid you kneel and pray … I bring you no sermon/ What I bring you is evil”, accompanied by the liturgical resonances of the organ and exotic cymbal whisperings. As Gilchrist urged the Young Son to ‘Imagine, imagine/What you are missing. … High living, secret delights,/ And beauty, beauty/ To kindle your senses”, glistening harp textures (Tanya Houghton) and chilling double bass portamenti (Ben Griffiths) added a portentous sheen. The instrumentalists were technically assured throughout: during the journey to and arrival at the city, when the Young Son is accompanied on his path to dissolution by the Tempter, was marked by a virtuosic palette of striking orchestral colours.

Rodney Earl Clarke was a strong presence as the heartless Elder Son. John McMunn’s Young Son was full of persuasive self-confidence as he justified his desire for freedom, but this was replaced by a melancholy introversion and despair when he realised the extent of his errors, in a moving duet with the viola.

The over-riding sentiment throughout these performances was earnest solemnity, with the emphasis on the moral framework of the works, rather than their emotional or dramatic dimension.

Yet, despite some fine instrumental playing, an accurate and resonant Chorus of Pilgrims, and some arresting designs by Kitty Callister which were as economical yet impressive as Britten’s own orchestration, things felt just a little too controlled and repressed — the restless uneasiness which permeates the score was not always present.

Moreover, the elongated nave further distanced many of the audience from the action, and the acoustics of the venue played havoc with the text. On the first evening, I was seated at the rear of the nave, and the only singer whose words were on occasion audible was Gilchrist — and in this regard he was not helped by the rags which covered his head and face throughout the performance. Things improved when a front nave seat on the second evening permitted many more of the words to come through but, even so, the action still seemed overly remote.

The processionals and rituals certainly emphasised the renewal of faith which is achieved in each parable. But, the pace seemed overly ponderous, the choreography too stylised; it’s worth remembering that Britten himself express his concerns “lest the work should seem a pastiche of a Noh play, which however well done, would seem false and thin”. [2]

Exiting the dimly lit cathedral into the urban clutter of London Bridge Station and the Shard was a rather dislocating experience; mystic power gave way to modernity all too quickly.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

James Gilchrist (tenor); Rodney Earl Clarke (bass); Samuel Evans (bass); Lukas Jakobski (bass); John McMunn (tenor); Frederic Wake-Walker (director); Roger Vignoles (musical director); Principal Players of Aurora Orchestra. Mahogany Opera. City of London Festival, Southwark Cathedral, Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th July 2013.


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Faber, 1982), p.430.

[2] Letter to William Plomer, 15 April 1959.

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