In their second annual Culture Project season, Gertrude Opera shares an immersive, highly affecting experience in Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River.
Subtitled A Parable for Church Performance, the alternative venue is not the only change director Linda Thompson and team have made with this work. Written for some 13 male voices, the company has adapted the piece for the singers on hand, strengthening the impact of the central characters significantly.
Seated in the centre of Peter Corrigan’s simple but striking white stage design, seven talented musicians from the Forest Collective play the haunting, driving music. Performing without a conductor, as prescribed by Britten, there are moments of hesitancy, but overall the combined effect of vocal and instrumental music reflects the excellent preparation by Dr David Kram, Pam Christie and Irina Cherkassi. Using the instruments for Britten’s exact arrangements is certainly far more atmospherically effective than a simple grand piano would have been.
The church setting is reflected in the opening and closing hymn-like music, as members of the congregation, so to speak, come forth to disrobe from their winter coats and ritualistically prepare for the performance before returning to their pews afterwards.
Unfortunately, Corrigan’s white skivvies and long johns are not flattering for any body type, but at the least the lead performers are better served with their costumes. The red star worn by each member of the ensemble is a clever modern touch. Anyone who has been to Times Square or Trafalgar Square recently will have seem tour groups all wearing some distinctive unifying symbol. This situation is mirrored exactly when the Ferry Man leads the marching boatful of passengers with his hand high in the air.
French artist Agathe de Courcy gives a highly committed central performance as the madwoman who has lost her young son. de Courcy sings with the power to fill a far larger venue, and immerses herself entirely in the woman’s searing grief. There is a sense of privilege in being there to witness such an intense performance.
Spurned by her fellow passengers initially, the woman undergoes a cathartic experience as the travellers come to understand and respect her grief. The music builds to the point when the voice of her deceased child is heard by all (a lovely solo by Tamzyn Alexander). The journey is completed by a baptism in the river, a cleansing ritual that leaves the woman, in de Courcy’s capable hands, visibly relieved, grateful and exhausted. Ultimately, however, the woman is left alone and desolate, accepted by her fellow man but still without her dear child.
In both her vocal and facial expression, Mezzo-soprano Belinda Brakhoff emanates tender warmth as the Abbot. Adrian McEniery sings with commanding power and authority as the Ferry Man. Owain Browne gives solid, sensitive support as the Traveller.
Curlew River plays at fortyfivedownstairs 30 May – 6 June 2015.
Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark