Sunday, November 16, 2014

That Was a Tough One.

My review of Curlew River is posted at SFCV. I filed it about 13 hours late; not that I think anyone noticed, but in theory I should have filed by 9:30 p.m. last night.

Usually I don't have problems getting my thoughts together about a music-dramatic work, but this was particularly tough. I can't point to very much that was wrong with what I saw, but it felt as though it just sat there. It didn't move me at all, and it's a potentially deeply moving story.

I was not alone in this, either; I've now seen a number of reports saying that some viewers were bored. Not me; I've wanted to see this for decades and I think it is a gorgeous piece. I missed the 1990s productions at Theater Artaud, both of which starred Chanticleer, and what must have been a Merola production in 1995 (San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, Patrick Summers conducting - right?).

This would have been a good performance to turn the Rubin Fellows loose on. It's more recent than anything else they reviewed, for one thing. For another, it's not like very much in the Western canon.

I had to consciously make sure I was reviewing the performance in front of me, rather than the one I have in my head: it is just not Ian Bostridge's fault that he isn't Peter Pears, whose voice haunts Curlew River as much as it haunts any other work by Britten. Bostridge sang impressively - his voice is much bigger than I'd expected. He is also odd looking in a Benedict Cumberbatch-ish way; he towered over the rest of the cast, he is obviously very thin, and his face is...just slightly off. I would like to hear him again. He is a very good singer.

A friend asked me what would have made the performance more satisfying, and here's what I said, more or less:
The questions are whether it works better as theater of the mind than theater on the stage; whether I caught a weaker performance than the ones that got raves in NYC and at the Barbican;  whether there is a pacing or staging problem in this production that smothers the catharsis in the piece; whether it's more effective done with the masks and Noh-like movement style.
I think Britten runs hot and cold. Some of his music absolutely kills me - Les Illuminations, the Serenade, Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes, some of his chamber and orchestral music - and some of it really does leave me totally cold. I have seen two different productions of Billy Budd and at the end of both evenings I was mostly enraged by the libretto. I recognize that the score has a lot of great music, but I just can't connect with the plot and what happens in it at all.
I also got nowhere with Grimes when SFO did it in the late 20th century (although obviously others loved it, reading reviews from back then), but the SFS production in June was fantastic, one of the greatest things I've ever seen, with a shattering performance by Stuart Skelton as Grimes. Now I know what Grimes is about.
I want to say that I am perfectly fine with directors staging Curlew River conventionally, rather than following the strict instructions in the score. See Google Image Search for lots of photos of productions of Curlew River, many of them so evocative I want to be magically transported to the performances in question.

My review omits something significant; there was a fleeting moment this morning when I meant to add it, but....the singers' diction was pretty good at the start, then deteriorated badly after about fifteen or twenty minutes. I missed a lot of what was sung, and there were no supertitles. This was undoubtedly a major barrier for anyone in the hall who didn't know Curlew River already.

I also neglected to mention where that moment of catharsis is, the one that should be the big dramatic moment in Curlew River: it's when the ghost of the dead boy appears and sings along with the chorus, and the Madwoman, calmed, becomes a Mother. This is the miracle, and it's the moment that the work is moving toward.

I expect there will be more; John Marcher and I sat together, for one, and I know Patrick Vaz attended as well.


Michael Strickland said...

I saw the Chanticleer performance in the 1990s and so hated how inadequate it was on every level that I never went to see the group again. I don't think Merola ever did it, but could be wrong. Wanted very much to attend this weekend but the piece is written explicitly for a small church and Zellerbach Hall is about the opposite end from that kind of venue, so I avoided the performance. And as you must have realized from listening to the recording, done right, this piece is one of Britten's best, which is saying something.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Well....the Faber web site lists that War Memorial/Patrick Summers performance. I will check with SFO.

Joshua Kosman liked the Chanticleer/Artaud production. I looked up one of his reviews of it the other day (AFTER filing).

Yeah, about the size of the performance space. And indeed, it is a great piece.