The Cambridge University Opera Society’s production of Curlew River in Trinity College Chapel is very impressive to watch and succeeds in focussing on the original Japanese influence on Britten’s opera.
Curlew River is based on the Japanese Noh play Sumida-gawa, telling the story of the bereaved madwoman who is taken on board by a ferryman and discovers that the child she lost died at the opposite shore. This background was incorporated into all aspects of the production, which made watching it a very different but interesting experience.
The fully face-painted cast did a good job of creating an atmosphere that suited the noh roots of the opera. This was particularly achieved by the contrast that was created between the convincingly naturalistic Madwoman portrayed by James Robinson and the more stylised acting of the rest of the cast, especially the perfectly emotionless and slightly creepy Ferryman, played by Michael Mofidian.
Even though it was not used much, movement was a prominent feature of this interpretation of Curlew River. At times, the static staging made the show drag slightly but this stagnancy worked to emphasize the moments of action which made key moments become epic. This also led to a sense of constant imagery – it was striking how nearly every moment could have been a powerful still image.
Abstract interpretations sometimes run the risk of becoming slightly pretentious, which was avoided by the appropriate use of simple but effective lighting and set. The set, consisting of five lightly painted white boards, included a rising sun that was just red enough to allude to the Japanese flag which seemed to symbolise the aim of including Noh theatre practice. The effective use of face-paint to mask the characters also supported both the simplicity and the Noh character of this production. It was interesting to see how the face-paint was incorporated in telling the story and bringing the show to life. For example, the madwoman was the only character with a face that was painted completely white until she returned to sanity and received colour as well.
Keeping most of the cast expressionless and the rest of the production so stylised also affected the intensity of the musical experience, as this was put into the spotlight much more.
Overall, the production was strong and, except for a few insignificant clumsy moments, disciplined in its stylisation. It did, however, drag at points due to the static staging, yet this was compensated for by impressive key moments.