Grimes on the Beach has, understandably, garnered more attention in this Britten anniversary year but one of the other major productions, the performance of Britten's three church parables in their original location of Orford Church, is ...
Grimes on the Beach has, understandably, garnered more attention in this Britten anniversary year but one of the other major productions, the performance of Britten's three church parables in their original location of Orford Church, is unmissable. (Judging from reports we have heard, Grimes should prove so as well - we will be there later in the week.)
Curlew River, Photo by Robert Workman
Director Frederic Wake-Walker has gone back to the source. I should perhaps let the composer himself explaining. Writing in the programme for the 1964 festival, Britten said:
It was in Tokyo in January 1956 that I saw a N?-drama for the first time.... The whole occasion made a tremendous impression upon me, the simple touching story, the economy of the style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, with which three instruments made up the strange music - it all offered a totally new 'operatic' experience.
The 1964, 1966 and 1968 Aldeburgh Festival programme books
Whether or not Wake-Walker has read this I'm not sure, but he does seem to have held true to these core principles and as someone as unfamiliar with both the art form and these specific works as Britten was in 1956, they made a powerful impression on me.
Orford church offers limited stage space, a square of what cannot be much more than five meters across and deep. The poor sightlines are partially rectified by this being raised up substantially. Beginning at 9.30, meaning it is dusk outside, the church in near darkness, chanting monks make their way down the nave of the church and take their places, the sound gradually getting louder and filling the space wonderfully. In a nice touch, the musicians of the impressively versatile Aurora Orchestra form part of this troupe, carrying their instruments where practical, before peeling off to one side to take their places.
Ben Payne's lighting design is extremely simple too, mostly foot lighting, heightening the dramatic effect, both in terms of the way the performers' faces are illuminated and also the way this casts shadows upwards onto the white walls of the church. (Orford is a particularly good location in this regard.) The N? style, with its hand gestures and tableau feel is extremely well served by this.
Photo by Robert Workman
Curlew River (first performed on 13 June 1964) tells the story of a mad woman, wandering, searching for her lost child. It is an emotionally fraught and compelling tale, slightly reminding me of Janá?ek's Jen?fa. In keeping with N? tradition, she is played by a man, James Gilchrist (the part having originally been written for Peter Pears, shared with Robert Tear in the original performances). And while he is very good, as he is throughout the parables, this aspect did not completely convince me. The standout performance for me was Rodney Earl Clarke's ferryman who was a commanding presence on the stage. However, from the chorus to the spirit of the boy (not specifically credited - perhaps this is shared between the boys at different performances), there wasn't really a weak link.
Britten's score is impressive too, both for what he achieves with a minimal ensemble in terms of texture, but also in the way he underscores the drama, especially with the drum. His integration of eastern influences is also well judged. Throughout the parables the Aurora Orchestra under Roger Vignoles, directing from the chamber organ, do not put a foot wrong.
On the small stage there is no room for elaborate set (and given the production is touring to London, Buxton and St Petersburg, you wouldn't want one anyway). In Curlew River, Kitty Callister's designs consist of little more than a wooden boat which breaks up to form a shrine towards the end. And yet, through skilful direction, and effective use of movement and gesture, it never feels small or l