Arts & Events

MUSIC & THEATER REVIEW: Britten's Curlew River'--Cal Performances

Ken Bullock
Friday November 21, 2014 - 02:35:00 PM

"A Parable for Church Performance" ... The subtitle for Benjamin Britten's unusual musical theater piece, 'Curlew River,' is precise, yet doesn't illuminate what the spectator will see and hear. And the promotional tag, "part Noh theater and part medieval Mystery Play" can make the performance sound more a glib or academic hybrid than a moving experience ... 

But the production of Britten's sui generis musical play, directed by Netia Jones, originally for the Barbicon Centre in London, presented here by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, successfully points to the two more-or-less contemporary theatrical styles from opposite ends of the world that inspired 'Curlew River,' as it elicits from out of the atmosphere created from the gestures taken from these styles an underlying artistic and very humane passion that is "the mystery" the Abbot intones at the start. 

Both Noh and Mystery Plays are rife with ceremony, preparing and presenting the ground for the revelation they intend, displaying the very borderline between ritual and theater. ("It's true theater begins in religious ritual," said that non- or irreligious dramatist Bertolt Brecht, "but at the moment it becomes theater, it is no longer religious ritual." True and untrue for both Noh and the Mystery Plays, both secular in they were not fully sacred, part of a liturgy—no matter how much they utilize elements of it—but both intended to bring out in artistry the human experience of the numinous that religion gives office to.) 

And 'Curlew River' begins with the folderol of pilgrims, clad in off-whites, grays and blacks on a dusky set shot through with "raw" white beams, giving it the sense sometimes of a Baroque tableau, preparing to board a ferry. The Ferryman and a Traveler, an Everyman sort, are introduced. 

Then from the wings, a different sort of singing is heard, a troubling, troubled sound—the Madwoman, sung and portrayed by Ian Bostridge—voice punctuated by a flute, driven mad by the kidnap of her young son, whom she waywardly searches for. 

Bostridge is remarkable in his singing and body language, angular, sometimes grotesque. His attitudes are maybe inspired by the performance of the Shite ("Shtay"), the lead actor and focal point of Noh, but look more like Gothic statuary forms, concretized ghosts of Mystery and Miracle Plays—both Noh and medieval theater and sculpture displaying asymmetric form, sometimes almost shocking in its grotesqueness, its carnality, to use a Christian term. 

And there are moments when, sitting downstage in a cross of light on the boards, Bostridge's face, illuminated by the raw white, almost pinpoint, spots, became masklike, one moment very feminine, the next, thoroughly masculine. This touched on the Noh's all-male cast of actors, who portray women—and the female roles, especially madwomen!, are the most honored—without pretense of disguise, trying to show an essence rather than realistic detail. And the effect also paralleled that of Noh masks, which, moving in the light, give a sense of changing expressions, moods ... 

Noh doesn't use much in the way of affective, mimetically emotional, psychological techniques to get across its often mysterious sense of a figure's (different than a character, a persona) dilemma, its karma—or passion, in the Christian sense. Instead, there's the artistic use of shamanic techniques, many of which were carried across Asia to Japan by Buddhist monks, who adapted them from a variety of religious practices—Hindu, Manichaean, Tibetan Bon, Central asian shamanism, Japanese Shinto—as teaching devices. Mystery Plays also drew from folk and pre-Christian religious and magical customs—as well as on the remains of the ancient wandering Mimes and their theatrical and storytelling techniques—but the action onstage was more mimetic, more emotional, as Christianity, especially in the West, gradually became a religion of the passions, the emotions, eventually giving rise to more and more psychological forms of theatrical story and action—and to opera. 

Britten's piece, not exactly opera, not oratorio, with a story from the classical canon of the Noh (''Sumidagawa") adapted to medieval Britain, the trappings of the medieval Church, a small musical ensemble partly inspired by Gagaku, Japanese classical music which decisively influential aesthetically the Noh, marshalled all these elements, these inspirations, not as academic references or for the excitement of a "fusion" effect, but to help crystallize an experience, concretize an intuition of humanity—a woman whose maternal sentiment has driven her to insanity, then to find, unexpectedly, illumination, which affects others.