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Mark Morris’s Staging of Britten’s Curlew River and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood

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Benjamin BrittenCurlew River
William Plomer – libretto, based on Sumidagawa by Juro Motomasa
Tanglewood, Ozawa Hall: 1 August 2013

TMC Fellows perform Curlew River at Tanglewood with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo Hilary Scott.

TMC Fellows perform Curlew River at Tanglewood with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo Hilary Scott.

Mark Morris – director
Allen Moyer – set and costume design

Cast:
Isaiah Bell – Madwoman
Edward Nelson – Ferryman
Nathan Wyatt – Pilgrim Leader and Abbot
David Tinervia – Traveller
Daniel Moody – Spirit of the Boy and Acolyte

Mary Ferrillo – viola
Nate Paer – double bass
Matthew Roitstein – flute and piccolo
Jaclyn Rainey – horn
James Ritchie – percussion
Annabelle Taubl – harp
Christina Lalog – organ

PurcellDido and Aeneas
Nahum Tate – libretto

Mark Morris – choreography
Robert Bordo – set design
Christine van Loon – costumes
James F. Ingalls – lighting

Maile Okamura (dancer) and Marie Marquis (singer) – Belinda
Laurel Lynch (dancer) and Samantha Malk (singer) – Dido
Spencer Ramirez (dancer) and Steven Eddy (singer) – Aeneas

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stefan Asbury – conductor

Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time. I will seek out performances of these pieces by these musicians in the future. Britten’s church parables are maybe easier to find in 2013 than years past or (I hope not) future, and one can imagine a sympathetic performance, perhaps in a complete triptych, with an audience of super-keen listeners, maybe — if kept from gimmickry — in an East Anglian gothic church or ruined monastery, could be something seriously interesting. The parable can straddle the sacred and profane too, but not necessarily comfortably. But the music ought to be enough without accoutrements. The music, in that it is so place-specific, with such deep roots in its ancestral fen, has an enormous amount to say, the sort of music that can stand to an infinite number of relistenings, that its wisdom becomes universal. Though it has the clear Japanese influence and initial inspiration, its primary seed sounds as if it goes back much farther in Britten’s life and his home province’s long artistic history. It sounds like a logical step from the Requiem, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave, Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes, and the instrumental music too. He “translates” the traditional Japanese instruments, the plucked shamisen, the flute and percussion using the traditional western instruments into a unique, thin tone color all his own, with the odd singing style restricted to male voices, in a way that perfectly suits his own peculiar melodic voice. It goes far beyond mere eclecticism and makes a perfect, integrated marriage with the medieval religious drama in this at once very old and very new church parable genre. East Anglia, rising ever so gradually from the east, out of the North Sea from the Wash and the fens where the essences of land and sea are smudged, to forests and sheep pastures, seems to have batted above its cultural weight since the Bronze Age at least. Though industrialists have destroyed so much of the fenlands since the 18th century with their drainage projects, the region has continued to provide a home for artists, who are often highly sensitive to the soft light and subtle forms of the landscape, with its “stark beauty, all its own” and its changeable coast. It is perhaps most obvious to use a plastic art to depict a place, and perhaps also to describe it. Thomas Gainsborough, born in Suffolk and later in life returned there to live, in his soft palate and strange light, and the generous expanse of his view (not merely in the spatial sense), his sinuous, reaching rivers, especially in his sketches and drawings in which he rarely wastes a line or squiggle, though he tended not to depict explicitly a real place, it is hard not to feel there is something there which shares kinship with Britten’s art. John Constable, also from Suffolk, in his landscapes and moreover in his oil sketches, especially the cloud studies, have an uncluttered style with large forms infinitely shaded in an obscured, even ambiguous light. Even where Gainsborough avoids simplicity in his more baroque paintings, he isn’t a habitual clutterer.

The Lone Lagoon by P. H. Emerson, c. 1890, from 'Marsh Leaves.' Photogravure print, 7.5 x 12.5 cm.

The Lone Lagoon by P. H. Emerson, c. 1890, from ‘Marsh Leaves.’ Photogravure print, 7.5 x 12.5 cm.

P. H. Emerson, born in Cuba but of Irish stock, lived in East Anglia too, and created several books of photographs documenting life and work of the East Anglians, of Norfolk especially, fishing, hunting, farming, sailing, harvesting march reeds, ‘quanting,’ ‘poling,’ ‘towing,’ starting with Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886) but later in his career taking more unambiguous art-photographs. He developed a paired down style in his last book, Marsh Leaves (1895) enough to cop him criticism, but the gray, alien landscapes, especially in his minutely and subtly toned platinum prints, are fascinating and full of ambiguities. In the 20th century Benjamin Britten wasn’t the only East Anglian composer, the now-too-little-heard Edgar Moeran was from Norfolk and like Britten had John Ireland for a teacher — this is significant as Ireland seems to have had a gift for allowing his creative students to develop their own peculiar sense of harmony. In his essay “John Ireland as Teacher” (1931) Moeran writes:

In this sense, John Ireland, in spite of the title of this essay, is not a teacher of composition. This is one of his virtues. He is a very wise adviser and an acute critic, both of his own work and of that of others, and he succeeds in instilling into his pupils that blessed principal of self-criticism. Moreover, he possesses an uncanny knack of immediately and accurately probing the aesthetic content of what is put before him, thus arriving at the state of mind which gave it birth, and understanding its underlying mood and aims. It is here that his sympathy is aroused, for he has the faculty of understanding the music from the pupil’s point of view, and his wide experience then steps in to suggest the solution of difficulties, and not only the technical ones.

Ireland does not believe that any standardised technique can be taught. “Every composer must make his own technique,” is his dictum. At the same time he is a firm believer in the strict study of counterpoint, and, much to my surprise and sorrow, I found myself expected to spend many weary hours, struggling with cantus firmus, and its embellishments in all the species. I state emphatically that I am glad of all this today, for I have come to realise that only by this means can a subconscious sense of harmony, melody, and rhythm be acquired.[1. The World Wide Moeran Database: http://www.moeran.net/Writing/IrelandTeacher.html accessed 26 October 2013]

Moeran was drawn to Ireland, and later based himself there, but he also collected East Anglian folk music, in which he found many similarities with the Irish, and whose melodies stand out in his music. There was also the painter Mary Potter, Britten’s friend and, after he had a house-studio built for he on a spare piece of land he had, his neighbor. Potter developed an appealing simple, paired down style, as many of the best artists seem to do later in life, especially in music. In front of her paintings, it’s hard not to recall Emerson’s late photographs. It is interesting too how contemporary critics drew analogies to far eastern art to describe her later works of the 1960s, right at the same time Britten felt a similar desire to express himself with less, in a spare manner, right around the same time he toured the far east and saw the Noh play which initially inspired his desire to write Curlew River. Potter’s son Julian pointed out this coincidence in his biography.1 Inscrutable, but never evasive, with a constant sharp focus on what it is saying, this parable seems alive it is so intent on saying this. However unfamiliar the tones, however foggy and lost the horizon, there are other senses made involved, that it always seems to have a kind of clearness, with no note wasted or tossed off. This kind of art has a “wonderful condensativeness” to borrow a Melvilleism. Britten’s style sits above 20th century fashions, there are similarities to be sure, but his minimalism sounds different from any other minimalist.

Marsh II by Mary Potter. 41cm by 51 cm, UK Goverment Art Collection, London. © Estate of the Artist.

Marsh II by Mary Potter. 41cm by 51 cm, UK Goverment Art Collection, London. © Estate of the Artist.

If this is East Anglian music, how to — if to — stage these parables? They aren’t simply church parables, but “parables for church performance.” They are surely performed little enough that we shouldn’t take this literally and exclude them from the concert halls. Music, singing, setting or location, and dance (or however it is staged), can bend that location and carve a place for itself, even in the drabbest theatre. Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance pieces, whose movements meet sung music happily from the other side (that is from the choreographer’s choosing the music), seem to move easily to the stage from their original, and in all cases more lore-rich venue, the Avignon Palais de Pâpes in the case of her En Atendant and Cesena. Ninette de Valois once said of her ballet of the Book of Job, which started out on the stage and then on (TV) screen in the 1930’s, that she couldn’t see performing it again unless perhaps in St. Paul’s, but I don’t believe the work has been it its entirety for 40 years. Here at Tanglewood, Mark Morris has been brought in to provide choreography and direction for the production. He places the musicians onstage in the back on a sort of iceberg of benches draped in white sheets. In fact set designer Allen Moyer drapes the entire visible stage in white. The singers are given movements, what really constitutes something closer to dancing than to stage direction, and it is a processing movement, of ceremony, but cleverly the processing covers many times the small stage without seeming to go round and round in circles. The movements are simple but wide and generous in unison, with the singers exposed up on stage during the instrumental introduction. It was a very fine, respectful performance of the music. The percussion part is very musical, with quite complicated rhythms, and James Ritchie played it with very satisfying accuracy and soul. Flutist Matthew Roitstein gave a bold performance, playing with a bright, lively tone, intense and thoughtful, without making it sharper than it needed to be, almost always bringing across a close understanding of the odd melody of the piece. He met the singers half way, a kind of bridge between the contrasty instrumental section and the singers. The entire ensemble brought across their thoughtful interpretation of this modern Mystery play. The music demands breath and an openness and free play in the discrete timbres which hardly ever overlap, yet also precision and tautness, and the close rapport of the group managed both. They played precisely and lucidly, but without pedantry, without heaviness, never trying to impose a more superficial alien logic on the piece. One can see the group as a balanced sextet of three winds and three strings plus percussion, but the bass, often plucked, and harp often behave percussively and the tuned percussion can be relatively melodic. The organ part itself too can have a distinct bite, providing more to the music than laying down chords, though the organ in use in Ozawa Hall sounded washed out at times. The singing was strident, but very individual, a clear texture of contrasting parts more usually heard in early music on period instruments, or in nature among birds, so the different characters came through each voice vividly, although their diction wasn’t always very clear. Isaiah Bell as the Mad Woman stood out, a character taking after more the Japanese side of the piece’s inspiration, where there is a whole genre of mad woman plays, letting her mourn in the ancient sense, more like wailing-singing you might hear in traditional Serbian music. The simplicity of the movements was effective in the end, at least not getting in the way of the music, but more than that having a logical steady flow, as the music does, as the “Curlew” — Britten’s sort of knickname here for the Alde — river does, and so complementing it with a sort of dramatic ceremony. Still, the setting was a little too monotonous in all white, especially as some daylight remained coming in to Ozawa Hall for most of the performance, with dusk setting in for the final lines.

The Mark Morris Dance Group perform Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood

The Mark Morris Dance Group perform Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas got the more elaborate theatrical treatment. It is a production from 1989, putting projected patterns of light on a curtain behind a darker stage, open except for a sort of versatile slab at front and center that served as bed, bench, altar or throne. It is a dramatic but unobtrusive set. The stage was free of musicians, who were placed up above in the “organ loft,” singers and orchestra together. The Mark Morris company was then out in force having free run of the stage. The choreography opened up to boot, breaking out of the formal ceremonial imitative and unison movements which Morris put to the Britten, making big miming gestures, at times mutely playing out the libretto. Abruptly arms would open wide, or a dancer would turn stiff, tight fast pirouettes, or throw themself into a histrionic pose, and so for each character a singer and a dancer would play in parallel, expressing or more usually emoting the character’s feelings of the moment, making action out of emotion. Baroque operatic acting certainly has this aspect, but didn’t necessarily have the effect in those original performances that this modern performance has in the present day. It is already such a deeply moving piece, such a perfect little opera, it doesn’t need this reinforcing layer which just weighs it down, so the dancing seems superfluous, even a little silly at times, or occasionally even seems to ask the music to serve. The dancers did approach the piece with so much energy and enthusiasm it was endearing at times, and the witches’ scenes came off with a certain well-judged tragicomedy. The set dances Purcell intended for dance saw more characteristic choreography, more its own style, though more recounting the situation rather than moving the story ahead, something the music always does with its own brisk pacing. Marie Marquis sang a very characterful Belinda who is nearly as big a role as Dido and shares in some way in her tragedy, either character rarely appearing without the sister. Her voice is not very loud, but is very clear and projected well with presence into the back of the concert hall with a sweet, resonant tone. Laurel Lynch danced Dido and also the Sorceress — Dido seemed a larger presence relative to Belinda in the danced side on the opera — with a similar commanding sort of regal presence in both roles, which was interesting despite the choreography following too rigidly the literal action, Samantha Malk’s voice strongly carrying likewise, more forcefully fraught. The conducting felt a little rushed, and the ensemble not as strongly cohesive as you’d hope for a small group, but perhaps part of it was being perched up in the seats above the stage they felt far removed from the center of action, and needed to reach and strain. Purcell’s music always comes through, though, and was as always very easily enjoyable.

  1. Julian Potter, Mary Potter: a life. Aldershot, England : Scolar Press ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Pub. Co., 1998.

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