Thursday 14th November. A cold clear night. A three quarters full moon rising above the city of London. We cross from the brutalist Barbican Centre along a raised concrete walkway, down some steps and join the short queue waiting outside St Giles Cripplegate. We’re here for Benjamin Britten‘s chamber opera Curlew River – A Parable for Curch Performance, and already the setting seems fitting. A stone’s throw but a world away from the tall dark Barbican towers; remote, rather windswept, watery sounds from the nearby artificial lake, and rippling images of birds and swaying river grasses projected onto the pale stone of the medieval church. It all speaks Event, and I for one am happy to have to wait a bit before the doors are opened, to take in the surroundings, gaze up at the night sky, huddle closer to my companion, savour the build up.
Before long, we’re let in, into a slowly dispersing fug of incense, and ushered either side of the nave, where there’s a low white catwalk and a canvas sail in front of the alter. Black and white footage of birds and grasses and a full-flowing river will be projected onto these surfaces during the performance. Settled cosily in the second row, we’ve got time to read the synopsis, and then the doors are closed, the lights dimmed, and the small ensemble of musicians from the Britten Sinfonia take their places facing the minimal stage. And for something like an hour and a half we are spellbound. Framed as a mystery parable performed by medieval monks, the opera was inspired by a Noh play Britten saw in Japan in 1956. In tonight’s performance, the all male cast processes into the church singing in plainchant, and dressed in grey monks’ robes appliquéd with Japanese characters. Gwynne Howell, as the Abbot, sets the scene – the banks of the Curlew River, not long before, where a sign was given of God’s grace – and the monks become the players of the parable: pilgrims, a traveller, the ferryman, and a madwoman, searching for the son abducted from her a year ago. The music is sparse and strange, with Eastern inflections, yet unmistakably Britten. Ian Bostridge, as the madwoman, is mesmerising; anguished and Ophelia-like. The chorus is also magnificent, with those muttering-crowd moments Britten excels at; first mocking the madwoman, then as compassion wins through, entreating the ferryman to let her onto the boat. Mid-crossing, we learn from the ferryman that a year to this day a bullying man crossed the Curlew River with a 12 year old boy, who collapsed, ill and badly beaten; was nursed by the river people, but soon died, and was buried by the path to the chapel. The madwoman’s search ends, grief stricken, on the opposite bank, at her son’s grave; but as she struggles to pray the dead boy is heard; his spirit appears to console and release her. It’s a magical and redemptive moment, and Duncan Tarboton, as the Sprirt of the Boy, carries it off beautfully. The opera concludes with the cast donning their monks’ robes and processing out of the chapel as they chant a prayer, leaving the madwoman kneeling, head bowed, at her son’s grave. A stunning production, moving and ultimately uplifting; and after sustained applause, we return to the clear cold night and run across the concrete walkway, run full of energy, and hear scampering behind us – the three boys from the cast, running as well, so we stop to say ‘Well done – that was brilliant’ before they’re chaperoned away, for hot chocolate, I hope, and no school in the morning.