By Erica Jeal
“What are those birds?” demands the Madwoman. In Britten’s “church parable” they are curlews conjured up by a skittering, flutter-tongued flute high above the land where she is looking for her lost son. But at this point, in this performance, they vied for our attention with a circling helicopter. The sound sat incongruously within Britten’s spare, timeless musical threads much as the medieval church of St Giles sits, like a medieval mirage, within the Barbican’s concrete embrace.
In the context of Curlew River, the clash seemed oddly appropriate; this is a piece full of quiet collisions, between east and west, ancient and modern. Netia Jonesstages it in the nave of St Giles’, the audience seated on both sides, craning to see around the pillars, the air heavy with incense. The monks who enact the story process with their feet crunching along a strip of shingle; monochrome video images rippling water, the ferry’s painter, skirling birds are projected on to the white floor and a white sail at the back. Jones, as ever, uses the video to support, not supplant the live action, and the result is succinct, impactful and ultimately cathartic.
Admittedly, Britten probably didn’t imagine it like this. The 1964 premiere production had the singers masked, as they would have been for the Japanese Noh play on which the work is based, and that would have created a sense of otherness absent here; even Ian Bostridge’s Madwoman, viscerally sung, was sympathetic obsessed yet sane underneath it, and soberly dressed. The faces ofMark Stone’s bluff Ferryman, Neal Davies’s thoughtful Traveller and Gwynne Howell’s sonorous Abbot drew us in almost as much as their voices. And perhaps the score, its lean lines played compellingly by members of the Britten Sinfoniaunder William Lacey, sounds less alien now than it did half a century ago the legacy of composers including Britten himself. Whatever the answers, this was an involving, direct, unforgettable performance.