City Opera Vancouver Sumidagawa 

Choreography Natsu Nakajima Performer Denise Fujiwara Technical Director & Lighting Design Roelof Peter Snippe Costume Design Natsu Nakajima, Michiko Nakamura, Cheryl Lalonde Set Design Michiko Nakamura

Curlew River Composer Benjamin Britten Libretto William Plomer Music Director Charles Barber Stage Director John Wright Costume Design Marti Wright Scenography Robert Gardiner

Dates and Venue 26 27 28 May @ 7.30pm | Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Held together by the tenuous thread of a river and the universal archetype of the weeping mother, contemporary Japanese dance and English chamber (or rather church) opera are presented by City Opera’s double bill. Both Sumidagawa and Curlew River are modern interpretations of a 15th century Japanese Noh play of a mother searching for her abducted child and driven mad by grief.

With Sumidagawa, dancer Denise Fujiwara concentrates on the thoughts, memories and longings of the grieving mother. Using the spare techniques of butoh dance, a bare stage and few props, she creates a journey of emotional intensity. Delicate face and hand movements and simple, everyday gestures of the body both conjure up vivid pictures and express the abstractions of thought and feeling. Often one slides into the other with memorable effect. In particular, Fujiwara is at one moment a child with a kite. In the next she draws the almost tangible kite string toward her as if to heave back her vanished boy. Such subtle layers of metaphor make this completely absorbing.  

Benjamin Britten was captivated when he saw the Noh play in Japan. The austere economy of the Japanese techniques, the stylized movement and costume, the use of mask and ritual and the shared knowledge of performers and audience all combining to make a profound work of art inspired him to find a way of achieving a similar effect in a Western idiom. He found it in English history, church music and ritual and medieval mystery tableaux.

In contrast to Sumigadawa, the story–telling in Curlew River is blunt. A prologue introduces the action of the drama and at the end the Abbot sums up: “A vision was seen, / A miracle and a mystery, / ...A woman was healed by the prayer and grace.” The characters are anonymous, known only by their occupation, the Abbot, the Ferryman, the Traveller. With that framework and using pared-down musical techniques, Britten created a subtle and poignant work.

Sam Maracaccini was as bold as brass as the Ferryman, somewhat more complex than one realizes at first sight. John Minágro was a mildly authoritative Abbot, Joel Klein a direct and self-possessed Traveller.

Tenor Isaiah Bell as the Madwoman was breathtaking. He sustained an intensity of emotion which never toppled into hysteria. His restrained gestures, like the Madwoman’s simple, haunting curlew motif in the music, slowly built suppressed tension and let Britten’s music work its magic.

John Wright’s direction was deceptively straightforward. Music Director, Charles Barber, led the small chamber orchestra cleanly and clearly. Marti Wright’s costumes were just right, particularly the Madwoman’s.

To present these works as a double-bill and in a theatre entailed some compromises. Sumidagawa was slightly abridged and lost some balance. Curlew River was originally intended to be played in a church, the musicians on stage with the actors. Perhaps in compensation partial sub-titles and back projection were used extensively but with mixed success. The river reeds and the dark estuary stretching across tidal flats towards a clouded sky were quite effective. On the other hand, Britten scarcely needs images of flying curlews or rising moons, he had such skill in musical painting.

© 2010 Elizabeth Paterson