Sumidagawa and Curlew River tell the same story through different cultural lenses

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      A City Opera Vancouver presentation. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, May 26. No remaining performances

      A starkly beautiful 1964 chamber opera by Benjamin Britten, preceded by the Noh drama that inspired it: what could be more logical? Though to my knowledge, it’s never been done.

      This was the idea of City Opera Vancouver cofounder Charles Barber, partly to observe the city’s non-Asian/Asian population parity, predicted to happen in just a few decades. But it needed no civic excuse: this was a striking idea in itself, and to have it staged in a theatre the size of UBC’s smallish Frederic Wood was ideal.

      When Britten saw a medieval drama called Sumidagawa (the Sumida River) in Japan during a five-month tour of Eastern Europe and Asia, he knew he had to transpose the action to Christian medieval England, and Curlew River was the result. Each has the same simple story: a madwoman searches for her abducted young son, only to learn that he has died and is buried beside a river.

      In this production, Juro Motomasa’s Noh play featured the Toronto butoh artist Denise Fujiwara, whose modern performance was freighted with an intense, ritual, hieratic slowness designed as if to delay time down to speeds and meanings beyond temporal reality. The staging all but eliminated sets but not lighting, nor a river, the symbolism of which figures in each play and goes back to Greek mythology in the sense of a continuity that flows through a bisected state of being—life and death.

      And then came Curlew with its cowled all-male cast in the fens of East Anglia. How carefully plotted its key map is as the madwoman searches for her son. She’s obsessed by her primary pitch of D-sharp, seemingly resolved by the dead boy’s high E when she finds him and his spirit rises from the grave. This is denied by the (not loud enough) organ’s dissonant E-flat. But D-sharp and E-flat are enharmonically the same, and that’s where the mystical resolution occurs. You feel it when you hear it.

      This was a powerful telling of the story with a uniformly strong cast of singers: baritone Sam Marcaccini, the young tenor Isaiah Bell (the bells are ringing for him), John Minágro, Joel Klein, Chris Lewall, and eight male voices from the Vancouver Cantata Singers.

      There were also excellent costumes by Marti Wright and direction by John Wright.

      But as much as I enjoyed this, I enjoyed Sumidagawa considerably more. It strangely suggested Yukio Mishima, the Japanese poet and artist who committed suicide and wrote about the fatal possibilities of beauty.

      It gave a sense of the very musical architecture that underlies Curlew River.

      See more at Lloyd Dykk’s Vancouver Scene blog at



      Charles Barber

      May 27, 2010 at 3:50pm

      I'm AD for City Opera Vancouver, so this is deeply biased; however, I very much appreciate Mr Dykk's acute and knowing comments. In this production, which a friend describes as "stupefyingly beautiful", there are musical gestures which ordinarily pass unnoticed.

      All will be stunned by the voices, the sets, by Isaiah Bell, and by the exquisite eloquence of Denise Fujiwara. This is from another planet. You will never have seen anything like it.

      What My Dykk caught is what Britten -- the genius -- intended: this crossover of tonality, of key, this exchange of pitch for pitch by another name. Enharmonic equivalency seems like mere abstruseness. It is NOT. It is essential in the tonal telling of a story, and Britten uses this feat again and again to reinforce conflict and define character.

      I, for one, am delighted that this review named and illuminated this unusual and graceful phenomenon. BTW, Richard Strauss employs the same device in Act III, the famous Trio, in Rosenkavalier. Sophie literally steals the Marschallin's note, in another key but in identical pitch, en route to stealing her lover. These composers are revered for a reason.

      Susan Weiss

      May 28, 2010 at 7:11am

      I for one am glad that Charles Barber commented here because while Britten may be considered by some as a challenging composer to listen to, he is, like the composer R. Strauss, in a word - "Brilliant".

      I think the bold programming of these two works is also "brilliant" on the part of City Opera Vancouver AD - Charles Barber.

      I hope we see more of this kind of programming from Charles Barber, it is refreshing!


      Jun 14, 2010 at 7:54pm

      This was truly exciting. Interesting to see it compared above with my favourite Strauss... I loved the performance, wanted to see it again to take it in more thoroughly once I figured out what I'd gotten into... <: Isaiah was amazing, as was Denise yes, and the whole thing - if I'd needed more proof that Britten was a genius I got it in spades.
      I'm thrilled to see that we have another opera company here of such incredible calibre. I hope it thrives and grows and gets the appreciation it deserves.
      Bravo Mr. Barber.