Mark Morris’s Double Bill of English Operas at Tanglewood: Britten’s Curlew River and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

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The Mark Morris Dance Group perform Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.
The Mark Morris Dance Group perform Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.

Morris has had a long history as an occasional opera director. Since 1988, when he staged Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in Seattle, he has directed nine operas, mostly works by Baroque and classical composers: Purcell, Rameau, Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart. The best of the productions I’ve seen were Rameau’s delicious Comédie lyrique, Platée, at the New York City Opera (done originally for the Edinburgh Festival in 1997), and his Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein Four Saints in Three Acts. His first version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, under Christopher Hogwood, in 1996, had some memorable dancing but failed to come together as an opera; but his completely new version for the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 was a hit.

The juxtaposition of Dido and Aeneas and Curlew River, two landmark English operas three centuries apart, sounded like a great idea. Many people I spoke with afterward the performances were deeply affected. NewYork Times dance critic Alistair Macauley, often quite hard on Morris, wrote a love letter of a review. But I’m sorry to report that it didn’t work for me, at least Curlew River didn’t, though Dido, with Laurel Lynch breaking in the double roles of the tragic Queen Dido and the comic evil Sorceress, the queen’s nemesis (roles Morris originally created for himself), remains as extraordinary as ever. At Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, the Tanglewood Vocal Fellows and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Asbury, were positioned on a shallow balcony above the back of the stage. For Dido, I moved from the floor up to the rear balcony, and from that vantage point it felt to me almost as if it was the dancers who were actually singing, the music seeming to rise out of their bodies. And maybe for the first time, from this distance, I could see not only the expressivity of each movement but the astonishing precision of both the choreography and the dancing.

But the inwardness of what Morris achieved so masterfully in Dido was almost the opposite of what he wanted in Curlew River, where he seemed to want the performers to be thoroughly distanced from the characters they were embodying. That’s partly built to the opera, in which a chorus of medieval monks acts out the legend of a noblewoman who is driven mad by the disappearance of her young son and is desperately trying to find him. It’s as if the monks were performing a mystery play. In crossing the murky Curlew River, the Madwoman discovers the truth about her child’s abduction and death. His grave has become a shrine for Christian pilgrims, and in a moment of sublime spiritual illumination, the child’s spirit sings to his mother and she finds consolation. Along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Sansho the Bailiff, it’s the most wrenching work I know about the separation of mother and child.

Colin Graham, Britten’s original stage director for all three of his church parables, had the monks who play the three leading roles (Madwoman, Ferryman, and Traveller) wear masks, balancing stylized abstraction with the projection of extreme emotion. Graham’s elaborate notes on the sets, costumes, and stage action are included in the score, and dispensation must be granted to any company that wants to depart from the original conception. Which is surely what Mark Morris wanted to do.

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.

Curlew River has always struck me as a dark, even dour work—the fens of the swampy river shrouded in mist and mystery. So it was startling to see that Allen Moyers’s set and costumes for Morris were almost blindingly bright: a fresh white sheet covering the back of the stage and the entire company, including the seven onstage instrumentalists, all wearing loose white shirts hanging out over tight white pants. The stage suggested more a modern hospital than a medieval church. Whatever mystery there was here would take place in glaring daylight. Morris also rejected the use of masks, so the excellent young singers in the leading roles looked only like themselves, completely undisguised, leaving their characterization entirely up to the imagination of the audience. Colin Graham’s original set included swirling ramps and steps and raised platforms; here everything, perhaps by necessity, lay flat on the Ozawa Hall stage.

This startling stage image would be striking to anyone familiar with the opera or not, and full of potential interest. Then the Abbot and Monks entered not in Britten’s processional line but barefoot, in a kind of wing formation, like a modern dance corps, doing Mark Morris-like dance steps. Anyone could tell that we were now in a theatrical world far from anything Britten may have had in mind. We got busy movement where the plainchant of the music cries out for simplicity and austerity. When I first heard about this Curlew River, I assumed that the singers, as in Dido, would be off-stage and that Morris’s dancers would be “acting” the roles. Given the physical awkwardness of these singers, I would rather have seen real dancers. Or less dancing.

But these dance movements, and even the surprisingly sunlit atmosphere, weren’t the source of my larger reservations. I’ve seen only two live performances of Curlew River, one decades ago, then a 2006 production at Boston’s Jesuit Center by the small opera company Intermezzo, for which Colin Graham himself served as an advisor about the staging. In both cases, I was as deeply moved by the expressive simplicity of the stage action as by the haunting music itself.

But Morris eschewed many of the libretto’s most poignant effects, as when, for example, the Ferryman poles the boat across the river in time to certain specified moments in the score. Among Britten’s most inspired musical ideas are the repeated swooping upward and downward glissandos for the Madwoman’s deranged request: “Let me i—n! Let me ou—t!” What does she mean? Of course, she’s trying to get into the ferryboat (“Let me in!”). But what else does she demand so urgently? Knowledge of her son? Clarity of mind? Doesn’t she also want release from her suffering (“Let me out!”), to escape from her madness—perhaps on the other side of the river? Morris’s image for these mysterious outbursts was to have the Madwoman opening and closing her white parasol in time to the music. It looked elegant, a nod to the opera’s Japanese origin. But, at least for me, it had little emotional resonance—more an artful distraction than a psychic revelation. Might this image have had more power if it was a dancer who was opening and closing the parasol (in the context of other dance movements) and the singing was coming from offstage?

At other moments, Morris ignored the words of the libretto itself. “Now I have reached the ferry,” the Traveller sings, sitting down. “She wanders raving, and all alone,” the Chorus sings while they were actually surrounding her. In some of the Madwoman’s most poignant moments, her face was hidden behind her parasol. At one of her most dramatic outbursts, when she is begging to be let onto the boat, she was placed so far upstage you could barely see her. Stage directions in the libretto calls for her to weep, and to “sink down,” but at these moment Morris had her merely pacing about. During the long narrative in which the Ferryman reveals that he has met the child and watched him die, instead of listening with rapt attention, the Madwoman seemed to be adrift in sleep, hardly interested.

Still, this was Mark Morris, and there were inevitably inspired pieces of staging, as when harp glissandos imitate the rise and fall of the waves and Morris had the chorus stand and sit, not in unison but sequentially, one after another, and move forward and back, in waves. But he also had the chorus sitting around on the sidelines folding origami cranes, which, because it’s not the focus of the music, looked merely silly and distracting. Morris made a lot out of those symbolic paper birds, but none of that really registered for me.

The musical performance worked better. The solo playing—viola, bass, flute/piccolo, horn, percussion, harp, organ—was all superb, though without a conductor and with the players spread out across the back of the stage (not what Britten intended) there were occasional lapses of coordination, and at times the pace flagged. Britten identifies individual instruments with specific characters, but having the players step forward to join the particular singers emphasized something more coolly conceptual than truly dramatic.

The singing was especially excellent. Canadian-American tenor Isaiah Hall has a compellingly expressive voice, and impeccable diction. Britten tenors will inevitably be compared to Peter Pears, for whom Britten composed most of his tenor roles. In his recordings with Britten, Pears demonstrates an uncanny, hair-raising ability to go deep into the souls of these characters created for him, both despite and because of his oddly beautiful unbeautiful voice. It’s right that younger singers don’t try to imitate him. But I wish Morris had encouraged his singers to give themselves more to their characters, to be more in character. Hall is so young, it was hard for me to see him as the Madwoman. I wish he had been allowed to wear a mask, or do something more than twirl a parasol to help him project—and reveal—his character.

Baritone Edward Nelson gave the Ferryman strength without suggesting this simple man’s unexpected range of emotional conflicts (ridiculing the Madwoman, refusing her, feeling sorry for her). Baritone David Tinerva was a sympathetic if anonymous Traveller. And Baritone Nathan West made a strong Abbot and Leader of the Pilgrims. For a chorus, good singing is more important than good dancing, so everyone in this chorus seems to have made the right career decision. And countertenor Daniel Moody, singing the part of the Spirit of the Boy from the second balcony, had an impressive voice that was almost too big to suggest a disembodied spirit.

On the whole, this was a more settled musical performance than the Purcell that followed, and the Britten singing was generally more vocally accomplished. For both musical and dramatic purposes, Dido and Aeneas should probably have come first. Its blacks might have helped us understand better why Morris wanted the Britten to be so white. The greater simplicity of the Purcell score might have prepared our ears better for Britten’s later and greater complexity. Beginning with a work in which Morris demonstrates such intense interest in his characters might have made it easier to understand his contrasting desire in the Britten to distance himself from character. Coming second as it did, Dido and Aeneas proved it was the greater work, in which Morris does with such profundity everything I wish he had also done in Curlew River. 

The Mark Morris Dance Group won’t be back at Tanglewood next summer, but will be in Boston next May, doing the East Coast premiere of his production of Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea (in Mozart’s arrangement), sponsored and co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series of Boston, with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Nicholas McGegan and costumes by Isaac Misrahi. It might be the event I’m most looking forward to next season.

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