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Britten100: Church of the Transfiguration's "Curlew River"

by Michael Cirigliano II

Curlew River, Church of the Transfiguration, Britten, Feast of Music

In commemorating the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the entire classical-music world is inundating concert audiences with performances of the famed British composer’s output. However, for every large-scale production of Peter Grimes or the War Requiem on the docket this year, there are also intimate performances being mounted of his lesser-known chamber operas and vocal works. This was the case this past weekend at the beautiful Church of the Transfiguration—a church noted for their allegiance to theatrical and musical offerings—where a semi-staged performance of the seldom-performed Curlew River was given two presentations by a dedicated troupe of artists.

The first of thee church parables, Curlew River transports the source material of a traditional Japanese Nō play to seventh-century East Anglia, where an all-male cast of Medieval monks tells the story of a Madwoman seeking to cross the Curlew River in order to investigate the recent kidnapping of her child. Through an extended lamentation, the woman is able to convince the Traveller and Ferryman to take her across the river, only to discover that her son is already deceased. Only through prayer and acceptance is the woman able to reconnect with the spirit of her son, find religious peace, and rid herself of her madness.

As the Traveller and the Ferryman, Nicholas Connolly and Tim Krol, respectively, were in fine voice—able to clearly articulate Britten’s at-times meandering text while blending with the disparate collection of instruments within the chamber orchestra. Connolly’s entrance at the beginning of the opera, in fact, was one of the highlights of the evening, expressing his troubadour song while eerily accompanied by a solo double bass and harp (prepared especially to sound like a Japanese Kyoto in the moment).

However, as the Madwoman, Christopher Preston Thompson missed a true opportunity to own the stage, relying mostly on grand arm gestures and an overly painted face to emote the tragic emotions of the mother searching for her son. For Thompson, diction was a problem throughout the work, with the tenor often swallowing his consonants and forming each vowel in much the same incomprehensible fashion. Even in the opera’s final moments, after the Madwoman has spoken with the spirit of her son and finds religious peace, Thompson hardly relayed a change in demeanor—turning what should have been an emphatic end to the parable into a quizzical and confusing moment.

Under the direction of Music Director Claudia Dumschat, the orchestra was thankfully colorful and confident. Consisting of a six-piece orchestra and Dumschat on the pipe organ, there was a wide palette of possible colors available, and the small band of players never missed a beat—from the thick tone clusters in the organ to the heavenly piccolo, harp, and viola that accompanied the Madwoman’s reunion with her son.

Hardly the sea-swallowing orchestration of Peter Grimes’ stormy interludes, the evocative tone coloring served as more of an introductory exercise in Eastern-based rhythms and orchestration that would later be given full life in Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice. In fact, recognizing Curlew River as a minor work of the composer’s—one that ended up paving the way for one of the finest farewell moments in all of opera—is perhaps the only way to broach this otherwise thin and unmemorable composition.

Church of the Transfiguration, Feast of Music, Curlew River