Benjamin Britten had already composed several of his best-known operas when, in 1964, he began writing a trio of works he called “parables” – religious-themed musical theater pieces designed to be performed in concerts. churches rather than in opera houses. All three have a ritualistic feel to match their office setting, as well as a sparse, sparse musical language that would characterize Britten’s work for much of the last decade of his life.
The first of the parables, “Curlew River”, was staged on Friday by the young company Enigma Chamber Opera. Written for an all-male cast (dressed as monks and acolytes), it was based on a Japanese Noh play that Britten saw when he visited the country in the 1950s. It tells the story of the crazed madwoman, in search of her lost child, who joins a group of passengers crossing the river to see the grave of a child who died the previous year. During the trip, the ferryman tells how the child was kidnapped and left for dead along the river. To her horror, the madwoman realizes that the child is her missing son; As his grief comes to a head, the boy’s spirit appears, telling him that they will meet in Heaven.
To accompany the drama, Britten created music whose novelty and invention make an intriguing contrast to its anachronistic setting. The score, for seven musicians, is designed to be played without a conductor, with the voices and instruments fitting together perfectly. The same motifs are often played simultaneously at different speeds – a technique called heterophony – which subtly reinforces the dramatic narrative. Some brief references to East Asia refer to the Japanese inspiration of the work.
The somewhat didactic religious message and cloistered attire seem to make “Curlew River” a strange fit in our time. But Enigma’s artistic director, Kirsten Cairns, had other ideas. In brief remarks before the performance, she mentioned that she rethought her vanity, so that the performers did not appear as members of a monastic sect but as a group of men who had all suffered some form of trauma. A meeting for the survivors, or maybe a group home.
So this performance may have taken place in a church – the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral, near Boston Common – but it was not from the church. For example, rather than entering the chapel, as Britten directs, Cairns simply asked the singers to stand up from where they were sitting among the audience – masked, like the rest of us – and begin the plainsong. which opens the room. The message was clear: they are like us.
By stripping “Curlew River” of its ecclesiastical attributes, Cairns has very effectively reframed its message. In Britten’s conception, the fool attains peace by the grace of God. In this austere production, on the other hand, it arises through community and connection. The parable is the initiation rite of the madwoman into a group of broken individuals, and peace comes from the presence and support of companions in misfortune. We are all in mourning, but by sharing the burden, we move forward. It is no coincidence that this rewording made the article quite relevant in starting to get back to normal after a pandemic.
None of these posts would have been successful without the consistently superb performances of the singers. Tenor Matthew DiBattista was exceptional in the role of the madwoman, the very portrayal of intense but dignified anguish. Ferryman Aaron Engeberth told most of the story in a rich and powerful baritone. Paul Soper admirably intervened at the last moment to assume the role of the abbot of an indisposed James Demler. 12-year-old Linus Schafer Goulthorpe made a touching appearance as the spirit of the boy. The music was performed superbly by the seven-person ensemble, with Edward Elwyn Jones giving a low-key direction of the organ.
Music by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by William Plomer, from the medieval Japanese Noh play “Sumidigawa River” by Jūrō Motomasa. Directed by Kirsten Z Cairns.
Presented by Enigma Chamber Opera.
At Saint-Paul Cathedral Church, Friday.