BWW Reviews: Britten's RIVER of No Return at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival

"Ideas of darkness and light, obscurity and illumination" are at the heart of the Benjamin Britten-William Plomer CURLEW RIVER. Called "a parable for church performance," it was performed in New York at the Synod of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival. This short but potent work is one part Japanese Noh theatre and another part English medieval mystery play, but altogether modern in its spirituality and visions of motherly love.

Performed by an all-male cast under the direction of Netia Jones, CURLEW tells the tale of a Madwoman, somewhere in England, searching for her son. As she gets to the River she pleads with a Ferryman to take her across to continue her search. During the journey, he tells her the story of a mistreated child who was abandoned there a year earlier and, soon after, died, to be treated as a saint by the locals. Praying with others at his shrine, the woman's sanity returns, in effect, as her false hope disappears when child's spirit emerges.

Jones performed her own miracles, designing the scenery, costumes and projections as well as the overall direction of the piece. The production, co-produced with the Barbican Centre, London, Carolina Performing Arts and Cal Performances Berkeley, fit beautifully into the chapel-like building. In shades of gray and black, with the white sail of the ferry and black shadows around the oblong stage, there was an otherworldliness to the proceedings that reached the audience without supertitles or light to read the libretto during the performance.

British baritone Ian Bostridge as the Madwoman was altogether stunning in his performance. Even when he wasn't singing, his angst--so controlled and understated--drew us in to his world of personal torment. His isn't the warmest voice, but it fit perfectly into his role. Dressed in a tailored black robe, edged with white (signifying the barest hope of finding the child?), he was a formidable presence, gaunt in appearance yet hopeful against the worst. It was as if he/she were a character from Samuel Becket--"I can't go on, I must go on..."--till he/she knows he no longer has to go on.

The other standouts in the production were the resounding baritone Mark Stone as the Ferryman and bass-baritone Neal Davis as the melancholy Traveller. Treble Ian Osborne, from the St. Thomas Choir School in New York, was the plaintive Spirit of the Boy. The Britten Sinfonia Voices ably filled out the cast, lending an eerie air to the performance. Under the leadership of Music Director Martin Fitzpatrick, the Britten Sinfonia integrated completely into the vocal aspects of the piece, whether with drifting solo lines or quivering harp arpeggios or repetitive percussion.

In short, it was a performance quite unlike any other in recent memory.


Photo: Baritone Ian Bostridge as the Madwoman

Photo by Richard Termine / Lincoln Center

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From This Author Richard Sasanow