Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, welcomed choreography and direction by Mark Morris last night in a Tanglewood Music Center production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, followed by the Mark Morris Dance Group taking the stage for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Æneas.
Running some 80 minutes, Britten’s “Parable for Church Performance” retells the story of Juro Motomasa’s Noh drama, Sumidagawa. Tuesday night in the Tanglewood Theatre, a small crowd gathered to watch a screening of this 15th-century play performed by Akiyo Tomoeda and Kan Hosho, both National Living Treasures of Japan, recorded in January 2007 at Kokuritsu Nogakudo (National Noh Theater), Tokyo. Noh drama is an exercise in subtlety and restraint, with Buddhist intentionality and focus brought to bear on the smallest details of performance; a tale unfolds at a courtly pace, with an all-male troupe of actors presenting a drama with few characters. The actor portraying the shite (here the principal character, a madwoman) wears a mask. Props are few. A small chorus and the musicians are visible on the stage. The language is stylized and tends to be elevated; props are minimal and a fan can be used to represent many things. The music, comprised of shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and drums, is similarly spare. The whole has an element of chant and formula, of religious ritual, about it. In the hour and a half and one scene of Sumidagawa, Motomasa tells the tale of a woman from Kyoto travelling throughout the provinces of Japan, now come to the remote Musashi province in her quest to find her son, abducted by slavers. While crossing the river she and a fellow traveler hear from the ferryman of a child who died on the opposite shore exactly one year previously and who is that day being remembered in Buddhist prayers. The traveler stays to pray; the woman questions the ferryman, revealing that the deceased was her much-sought-after son. When the woman prays at the tomb of her son, she hears his voice; his spirit appears to her and though she tries to clasp him to her, she cannot. The spirit of her son does, however, bring the woman a sense of closure and a release from the frenzy of her unknowing and grief. Noh drama is not to everyone’s taste (as I overheard leaving the Theatre), but when Britten and Peter Pears saw two productions of Sumidagawa in February 1956 while visiting Japan, it set in motion the creation of the first of three church parables, Curlew River (composed in early 1964; first performed in Orford Church on June 13, 1964 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival). Noh drama meets medieval English mystery play as the same tale is translated to a Christian context and set now in the Fenlands of East Anglia.
Curlew River has a libretto by William Plomer based on Sumidagawa, and in this production was directed by Mark Morris. Allen Moyer provided the spare set and costume design: white jeans and untucked oxfords for the performers (including instrumentalists); a large white sheet as backdrop; a long white bench upstage, behind it a harp, an organ, and percussion, for the instrumentalists; another bench to stage left where the chorus sits when not moving about the stage; a white coffin-like bench, stage center, represents the ferry then, stood upright, later represents the tomb. While the chorus sits to the side, they fold paper boats and origami cranes. The Ferryman uses a large fan as paddle and rudder, and a sheet on a pole appears on stage for the sail during the boat’s journey across the river; the Madwoman makes highly effective use of a white parasol to stunning visual effect, even rolling it across the floor mat at one point and producing the sound of a drumroll. There is great power in this visual simplicity. I am ambivalent about the choice of color, since white bears funereal connotations in Japanese culture (purity in Christian iconography) and Britten combines both traditions in Curlew River; I found that visually the whiteness made more of the death in this narrative than of the culminating redemption and release in this parable. At the same time Britten amplified and expanded the restraint marking the Noh drama he took as his model, so this visual restraint (Noh sets are not monochromatic) is in tension with the intensity of the drama enacted in the parable—most especially in this staging where Morris discarded the detailed notes on choreography and performance by Britten and Colin Graham (director of the original production). The result is a less stylized, less solemn, and less archaic performance, a more emotionally honest and direct presentation of this tale.
Curlew River begins with the Chorus of Pilgrims (instrumentalists intermingled among them), led by the Abbot, entering the stage and intoning the unaccompanied chant, Te lucis ante terminum. The seven musicians in this conductor-less ensemble took their places while the chorus moved about the stage. Given a viola (Mary Ferrillo), a flute and piccolo (Matthew Roitstein), a French horn (Jaclyn Rainey), a harp (Annabelle Taubl), an organ (Christina Lalog), percussion (James Ritchie), and a double bass (Nate Paer), Britten created a fully-articulated soundscape drawing on the full range and color palette of these instruments and novel combinations of them to achieve textures dense and lean. The music incorporates elements of Gregorian chant, traditional Japanese melodies (not just the musical accompaniment to Noh drama), stopped and natural harmonics, sul ponticello bowing—a full arsenal of technique to make an orchestra of a small ensemble. These musicians created a tight ensemble throughout the performance, under the challenging conditions of being onstage and, at times, in the middle of the choreographed singers. Roitstein, at one point, still playing the flute, danced along with the Madwoman: an impressive feat.
The singers also rose to the occasion, performing their roles about the stage like an opera production. At times the enunciation was not so clear, but the singing of these tricky roles had long since been mastered. I do wish most of the vocalists had shown more restraint in their use of vibrato; this was especially true for Nathan Wyatt, as Leader of the Pilgrims and Abbot, and Edward Nelson, as Ferryman. The sudden shift from the simplicity of the opening chant to the Abbot’s first words, with an immediate and wide vibrato, proved an overly harsh transition. Baritone Nelson’s operatic delivery of the Ferryman’s lines was more suited to the operatic world of diabolical men than this church parable; his forceful stage presence and declamatory style did effectively present the Ferryman as an authoritative, enforcing (at times, bullying) figure of social control. David Tinervia sang the role of the Traveller with a more restrained vibrato that better suited the role and the work as a whole, even as he, too, embodied a societal enforcement of norms of rationality at times during this production. Countertenor Daniel Moody sang the Spirit of the Boy from backstage; his reedy voice flowed undulatingly over the stage proceedings at the end of the parable. The centerpiece of this production, however, was Isaiah Bell as Madwoman. It is the blessing and the curse of performing Britten’s music that we all live under the shadow of reference recordings directed and conducted by Benjamin Britten and showcasing the voice of Peter Pears, for whom so many of these roles were conceived. Bell took on one of Pears’ roles here and made it wholly, fully his own. With his powerful delivery and Morris’ insightful choreography here fully embodied, Bell more than rose to the challenges of this demanding role.
The second half of this program, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Æneas from 1689, was sung and performed by Tanglewood Music Center fellows conducted by Stefan Asbury on the second floor balcony behind the stage, with the Mark Morris h Group on the stage. This Morris choreography premiered in 1989 in Brussels, as celebration of the music’s tercentennial, with Mark Morris himself dancing the roles of Dido and Sorceress. Now Laurel Lynch dances those roles, Spencer Ramirez essays Æneas, and the remaining parts are taken by a chorus dressed in black tanktops and long wraps that hang down as skirts when they are dancing attendance on Queen Dido or the Sorceress, and are tucked up between the legs when they are dancing Sailors aboard Æneas’ ship. The black staging is backed by a drop resembling a large, if unidentifiable, map. The dance is modern, at times verging on interpretative (Artemis shooting Actaeon; his transformation into a stag) and reflecting the word-painting in Purcell’s music (as in Scene 2, when the Chorus writhes and twitches along with the sung staccato words “Ho, ho, ho”). The choreography is explicitly sexualized, picking up on subtleties in Vergil’s epic that are not foregrounded in Nahum Tate’s libretto (as Æneas’ flashing himself upstage in Scene 3 to the words “upon my bending spear / A monster’s head stands bleeding”). Throughout Morris embraces anachronism, making Purcell modern. This dance is a pleasingly new engagement with a familiar musical work, and a welcome occasion to consider once more this tragic tale of love lost in the pursuit of empire.
Having the dancers on stage and the musicians off reinforces a dissociation between music and performance here. Pairing Dido and Æneas with Curlew River made for an odd program: in the first half, music and dance were combined on stage, while the second half saw professional dancers take pride of place and Tanglewood’s musicians assume the backing role. Asbury led a chamber orchestra of musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center in a delightfully spare, historically informed playing of Purcell’s music. The tone was solid, the playing, without vibrato, was restrained but in no way dispassionate. The ensemble was tight and the music was emotionally laden and highly effective. Against this the vocalists—notably Samantha Malk singing Dido and Sorceress (a large and challenging pair of roles which she did not fully capture), and Marie Marquis singing Belinda—sang in a more contemporary, modern opera, style, with full vibrato. Steven Eddy sang Æneas with more restrained tone and a more judicious vibrato. This contrast within the music between instrumental and vocal performance practices I found distracting, pulling the already bifurcated performance into a third direction. Jessica Aszodi and Katherine Maysek, singing First and Second Witch respectively, did not always clearly enunciate their words. I assume the singers worked with vocal coaches to prepare this performance, although none was listed for the Purcell in the program, so responsibility must fall to Asbury; I wish he had managed to integrate vocal and instrumental music more fully into one stylistically unified performance.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Zachary Woolfe wrote a “Critic’s Notebook” column previewing this performance and based on attending rehearsals earlier in the week [linked here, although perhaps requiring a subscription to view.] Woolfe plays up the Britten being performed by students, as opposed to the “true ballet” in the staging of Purcell by the Mark Morris Dance Group. The price of professionals taking the stage in the second half of this program is kicking the musicians out of the limelight. This is a wholly unfair criticism of the intense focus and commitment the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows brought to their work in both the Britten and the Purcell. Yes, some of the chorus members in the Britten were better than others at embodying the choreography; this statement is also true for professional groups. The mastery of the music was never at issue. I have pointed out some issues of performance and delivery that I would have liked to have seen done differently; again, the same is often true for professional performances. Finally, it is unaccountably rude of Woolfe to be so dismissive of the wholly professional, completely captivating, and fully realized performance most especially that Isaiah Bell gave as the Madwoman in Curlew River. In the end, it was the “untrue ballet” of Benjamin Britten, performed by younger, not yet professional, musicians that was the more successful half of this Mark Morris mélange.