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Curlew River: Britten’s madwoman as samurai

photoNever do I listen to Britten’s Curlew River as an opera-goer. Partly because I’ve always had to travel considerable distances to hear the piece live, I am, in effect, a pilgrim – and one who happens not to be inclined toward pilgrimages.

More than that, Britten’s 1964, 80-minute piece about a madwoman looking for her lost son is a confluence of so many things that my expectations about well-made lyrical drama are left far behind. It’s an aesthetic vacation of sorts. With ritualistic deliberation and allegorical formality, Curlew River doesn’t get away with lacking plot, melody and any sense of extroversion so much as it does away with any need for these things with its unfiltered revelation of core issues in human existence – one reason why the imported production starring Ian Bostridge felt perfect for Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. It opened on Thursday Oct. 30 for a three-night run, and not in any theater, but at St. John  the Divine.

Considering that Upper West Side cathedral is about the size of Rhode Island, the performance was sensibly held in what’s called the Synod House at 110th Street and Amsterdam, a highly-atmospheric neo-Gothic chapel that’s now outfitted with a miniature airstrip of a stage around which the audience (numbering less than 500) is seated. A loose-gravel walkway for the processionals gave the singers’ footsteps an added percussion to the sparer-than-spare orchestra (in this case the excellent Britten Sinfonia under Martin Fitzpatrick), dominated by chamber organ, percussion, harp and horn.

Musically, one could say that it’s Ceremony of Carols meets the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings – put to the service of a piece whose framework is English medieval miracle play but whose manner comes from Japanese Noh theater – with an all-male cast. The setting is a ferry boat across the river where, on the opposite bank, an abused child had mysteriously died a year before, and whose grave is considered sacred ground. Most ferry passengers don’t know or care, though the last minute boarding of a shambling, raving madwoman who sings in a key alien to everyone else, brings an added charge and purpose to the journey. The distressed boy was her kidnapped son. By the end, she hears his voice, and amid all of her grief, is restored to a tentative sanity.

Why does Curlew River inhabit one’s psyche so completely? This production was experienced at such close proximity that the listeners were almost part of the performance. I swear that singers often broke the fourth wall and were looking me right in the face. The sense of ritual, if anything, heightened the story’s pathos because there’s no kidding yourself about the tragic direction that the piece is taking. The lost boy, who has been essentially beaten to death, could be any one of us, figuratively speaking, in the wake of family deaths, professional disappointments and incidents of betrayal. You don’t know the kid; you’ve been him. You’ve also been his mother, when facing the intractability of loss.

In this production directed and designed by Netia Jones, the set had a ship sail at one end of the performing area and lots of computerized imagery (birds, rippling water) projected onto the stage floor. At one point, Bostridge (who was the madwoman) was kneeling on the stage amid stark shafts of light in the shape of a cross. Soon, though, that turned into a pervasive gray, oatmeal-ish texture that covered the entire floor – an image that was even more devastating, suggesting the boundless emotional sea in which the madwoman was adrift. Though some productions have given the madwoman some pretense of femininity, this low-artifice approach had Bostridge dressed in a manner that was equal parts samurai and monk. He was also clothed in jet black – a start contrast to the dead-of-winter gray that was the rest of the production.

One need not use much imagination to know that the Curlew River is the River Styx, that the cold, mocking ferryman is Charon and that all of the passengers with the possible exception of the madwoman are, in fact, dead. That may be why the ferryman is so unsympathetic to her: However devastated, she’s alive, isn’t she? The boy, who appears at the end, is more than a voice. He physically appears, still with all of his bruises and wounds from life.

The singing was consistently excellent – not that one noticed all that much because voice, movement and stage imagery were so much of a piece, though Mark Stone was a particularly fine Ferryman. In light of Bostridge’s eccentric recital manner in recent years, casting him as any sort of mad person might seem like an invitation for overkill. Not so. The voice was unusually rich and his manner was a model of power projected with restraint. He barely moved at all for much of the performance; everything came from within. By the end, and during his bows, he looked downright traumatized.

Overall, this is the most penetrating encounter I’ve had with Curlew River, the Britten theater piece that reached the furthest by fusing disparate elements as if they always belonged together, even though their points of contact were made from distance centuries and hemispheres. Though Britten wasn’t one to explode forms in the manner of his avant-garde contemporaries, he came close to doing so here – even more daringly within church walls. What makes the piece even more fascinating is that there’s nothing like it, not in Britten’s output or in anybody else’s. Curlew River more than  portrays existential aloneness, but illustrates it with its existence.


  1. Superb, David! Your review both took me “there” into the soul of this little monument of a piece, and moved me. I want more frequent postings from you, pilgrimages or not.

  2. Martin Smith says

    [The story is told through four main characters who, in the style of Noh theatre, are all performed by male singers: the Abbot (who acts as a narrator), the Madwoman, the Ferryman, and the Traveller. A chorus is provided by eight Pilgrims]
    Curlew River opens, as do the other two Church Parables, with a processional, to the hymn Te lucis ante terminum (To Thee before the close of day), in which all performers, including the musicians, walk to the performance area and take their places. At a cue from the organ, the Abbot, who acts as a narrator, introduces the “mystery” to be presented. An unhurried robing ceremony – to stately instrumental accompaniment – follows, after which the play commences.

    The Madwoman and Traveller wish to cross the Curlew River on the Ferryman’s boat. After briefly introducing themselves, the Madwoman explains her quest: she is searching for her child who has been missing for a year. Though the Ferryman is initially reluctant to carry the Madwoman, the other characters take pity on her and persuade the Ferryman to give her passage. As he is carrying the Madwoman and the Traveller across the river, he tells the story of a boy who, one year ago, arrived in the area with a cruel master who kidnapped him from his home near the Black Mountains (which is where the Madwoman is from). The boy was sick, and was left by the river by his master. Though the boy was looked after by the local people, he died. The Ferryman recounts the boy’s words:

    I know I am dying… Please bury me here, by the path to this chapel. Then, if travellers from my dear country pass this way, their shadows will fall on my grave, and plant a yew tree in memory of me.

    The river people believe that the boy’s grave is sacred, that:

    …some special grace is there, to heal the sick in body and in soul

    As the Ferryman tells his story, it becomes clear that the boy who died one year ago is the child of the Madwoman. Grief-stricken by this knowledge, she joins the rest of the cast in praying at the boy’s graveside. At the climactic moment when all the men are chanting together, the voice of the boy (a treble) is heard echoing them, and his spirit appears above the tomb to reassure his mother:

    Go your way in peace, mother. The dead shall rise again, And in that blessed day, We shall meet in heav’n

    At this point, the Madwoman is redeemed and her madness lifts. Britten depicts the moment with the Madwoman letting out a joyful, melismatic “Amen”, the final note of which resolves onto a long-delayed unison with the full cast – a signal of return and acceptance.

    Here, the robing ceremony music returns, as at the start, and the players resume their normal dress. The Abbot reiterates the moral and bids the audience farewell. The full cast then recess to the same plainsong with which the work began.


    (Wiki) No abused child here! And a rather prosaic beginning and end. Yet you make it sound more like Erwartung. I cannot see why one would need an Abbot. (seems to have been dispensed with?) You read far more into the story in Jungian terms than the apparent scenario permits: how much of this is you, how much the production, and how much the implicit suggestion that this in fact means, Expressionistically, today far more than it ever meant years back in Suffolk? Britten’s Phedre was impressive, but he never keeps you on the edge of your seat as does the opening of Midsummer Marriage or the last movement of Saint Francois d’Assise.You give it almost Wagnerian ambitions and value. But I never sense in Britten any real morality. Great skill, yes, and a very tortured personality seeking its peace: impressive! I thus remain a bit unconvinced, while hoping the fault lies with me..

    • Martin, did you see this production?
      Come to think of it, have you seen any staging of Curlew River? (That’s not clear from your post.)

      You say there’s no abused child here. There may not be a child explicitly described as “abused” in the librettist’s basic scenario, but it’s hardly a great leap to to describe a boy “with a cruel master who kidnapped him from his home” as abused. And David, in the third-to-last paragraph, makes clear (“He physically appears, still with all of his bruises and wounds from life”) that this production portrays the child as abused.

      You ask David, “how much of this is you, how much the production, and how much the implicit suggestion that this in fact means, Expressionistically, today far more than it ever meant years back in Suffolk?” As I read his post, it seems pretty clear to me which parts are description of the production and which parts are David’s interpretation – i.e., what he, as a viewer like any other, took away from the production and how he was affected by it.

      (I’m not really sure where Expressionism comes into this at all, and I confess that your Erwartung mystifies me, except that both it and Curlew River are chamber operas that feature a disturbed woman.)

      • Martin Smith says

        I am not saying anything. Just trying to fathom whether it is an undiscovered masterpiece I ought to know…I ask in all humility…as for Britten, I have never found him at all memorable (I could not remember, IMMEDIATELY, but cf infra, a single melody by him, for example) – the things I HAVE admired are one song about fishes,and the Third String Quartet. Ah yes – and bits of the Tenor, Horn Serenade. I can almost hear the horn in that, with its slight slide between tones, shadows fall on castle walls. To me there is a difference between a work which called forth in me an intense frisson (Berg’s Concerto, for example), a work which caused me intense frisson AND I can remember it (Verklarte Nacht, Walton’s Violin Concerto) for example-well, who can remember anything except the opening of the first mvt of the Walton?)) , and a work I merely noted as being very fine (many, many, unfair to choose, and I can remember none of them offhand!). Memory plays all kind of tricks too. I have always rationed my listening. I may have heard Curlew River at Cambridge, I am not sure. I also wonder about the curlew symbolism. I am more interested in wondering whether works of art grow in status over the continuing eras of their reception, and whether it is meaningful to claim this or aesthetically posit it, as (maybe) David is doing. Hence my questions. It’s a very difficult and unexplored question. I remember hearing Tippett lecture, and confessing that I did not like to listen to too much music. Tippett replied: ‘”Nor me now. I did most of my listening as a young man. I know what you mean.” And it was apparently the freshness of The Messiah for Tippett, who had never heard it before he was about 25, which led to A Child of Our Time. Now when I allude to that, both its opening lines, ‘The world turns on its dark side/ It is winter’ and the feel and even melody of the Nefgro Spirituals, or at least, Old Man River, come back to me. For me this is the test. If I think of the Third Quartet of Britten, wow, I can just now her its E flat Major opening – 4 chords, lovely stray dissonances 1 2 3 – 4 !!! – and then a worrying, worried, insistent figure. When Britten wrote this he was apparently appallingly ill. I think he had a really terrible life, filled with demons. A pianist – a distinguished one – who met him told me of him, a ‘dark presence’. I knew Philip Ledger slightly, the original organist. In our days at King’s Britten was a kind of sectarian music, an East Anglisn eccentricity. That’s why I ask. To me, artistic awareness is less knowledge and cluedupness (“martin, if you do not know this you are a fool”) than sensitivity and a tad of historical, as well as eg harmonic, awareness. You defend David, but I never attacked him. I am in thrall to his every word. Is asking for more precise reactions from him, in the interests of enlightenment, in some way wrong? If so why? I am curious. And if you know your music history you will know Britten was intensely involved with German music in his very early days, hence my parallel. Hmmn?

        • Ah! I understand you better now, and I apologize for misunderstanding.
          And thanks very much for writing such a considered response.

          As for relating to Britten’s music – some of it is simply taste. Well, taste seems too flippant a word; maybe mindset or aesthetic disposition is better? (Too pretentious sounding, that last one.)

          For instance, I’ve been trying off and on for decades, and I’m probably just never going to love Mozart’s music. I understand why so many people think he’s great, but honestly, in most genres (especially my favorite, sacred music) I’d rather listen to Haydn. And 19th-century Romanticism just doesn’t interest me a bit. I’ll never argue that Schubert’s song cycles and Brahms’s symphonies aren’t masterpieces, but I’m not going to devote time listening to them when there’s so much other music I’m crazy about.

          As for Curlew River itself, if you want to give it a try, I’d very much recommend that you watch it rather than just listen to it. There doesn’t appear to be any video commercially available, but there’s one (only one, it seems) complete video on YouTube: the 1998 Aix Festival production.

          Hope this helps!

  3. Were I living in NYC, I should very much like to have seen this performance of ‘Curlew River’, or indeed any of the 3 church parables. It does sound indeed as though all did well. It’s also interesting to read how “restrained” Ian Bostridge was, in a manner of speaking, given how OTT his singing manner has seemed over the radio, from listening to his Proms on iPlayer this summer, for example. The flipside / more charitable interpretation of his OTT-ness is that Bostridge is simply immersing himself into the music with his own particular brand of intensity.

    Back in the day, Colin Graham directed 2 of BB’s church parables during his time as artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, ‘Curlew River’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’, both before my time. It’s a shame he didn’t direct ‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’, for completeness. I doubt that I’ll ever have the chance to catch any of them live, so lucky you again to have seen ‘Curlew River’ there.

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