Benjamin Britten visited Japan in 1956 and was greatly impressed with a traditional Noh theater performance of Sumidagawa, the story of a mad woman in search of a missing son.  In collaboration with a poet William Plomer, he composed a “parable for church performance,” Curlew River, which was here presented in the small Synod House, part of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. While the inspiration and much of the storyline may have come from the Noh theater, the result is a unique work of distinct vocal and instrumental composition the likes of which one rarely encounters.

The small church interior walls were lined with four rows of chairs on each side where the audience sat on raked platforms. This afforded a clear sightline for most to the stage floor, a small rectangular platform covered with white cloth. At the head of the platform soared a white mast which signified the boat that is central to the plot, but which also served to conceal the singers at the beginning of the performance. Musicians of Britten Sinfonia were situated at the foot of the platform, with the musical director at the chamber organ. The performance began when the four principal singers and ten chorus members including two boys, all dressed in a long hooded robe of a Christian monk, appeared from behind the white triangular mast in single file, walking and singing a chant Te lucis ante terminum, which was reprised at the very end to frame the performance. The Abbot began to narrate a mysterious story of a mad woman, and the monks disrobed to become Madwoman, Traveller and Ferryman, so that the tale could begin.

The instrumental writing, especially of the chamber organ and percussion with the opening chant, evoked a distinct similarity to the Noh music, rooted in the Japanese court music of gagaku. While the Japanese influence was apparent here and elsewhere, the harmonic language was rich with seamless interplay of strings, winds and percussion, and was distinctly both Western and Britten. The horn playing recalled scenes from Billy Budd, while the delicate melodies echoed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One felt almost suspended in a musical Neverland that is neither the East nor the West at times, but once one adjusted to this somewhat uncomfortable place, the result was a sensory experience of unbearable pain and catharsis.

The sparse staging was directed by Netia Jones, who designed the sets, including costume and video projections. The river crossing scene with the Madwoman, Traveller and the Chorus on benchers near the mast, with the Ferryman at the helm, was most effective as the waves projected by the videos covered the entire staging area, including the mast, which created a visually stunning image of a journey, both actual and spiritual. Other projections, such as the image of a flock of curlew flying over the landscape and of flowers in the field, at times seemed a bit excessive. Ian Scott’s lighting design effectively accentuated the musical highlights.

Curlew River is structured as a “passion,” with alternating chorus and solo singing. It is somewhat unfortunate that the venue was not conducive to surtitles, distracting as they may have been. Even though the singers’ English diction ranged from good to incisive, it was at times difficult to make out specific words, drowned by music or with the performer facing different sides of the church. After a while, however, the incomplete comprehension of the text seemed to lend an additional layer of the mystery of the story. An increased focus on – and appreciation of – the music, with singing as part of the instrument, ensued. The singing was, on the whole, at an exceptionally high level.

Ian Bostridge has chosen to to display his unusual tenor voice mostly in concerts and recitals, with occasional and selective opera appearances. His performance here was masterful and commanding in the beauty of his voice, clear and piercing, touching the emotional core of the work. His tall, thin and wiry frame was well suited to express the quiet madness of the Madwoman, and his every utterance was tinged with unspeakable pain. He mostly sang the role without much variation in vocal color, but showed emotional nuances by volume control. His performance towards the end, at the lost son’s graveside, with the grave simply marked with a cross projected on the stage, was the highlight of the evening, made even more poignant by the appearance of the spirit of the son, a heartbreakingly plaintive boy soprano, Ian Osborne. The boy appeared from behind the mast and slowly approached the kneeling mother who never turned her back to face him, but only heard his voice as the spirit consoled her. At the end, after the chanting monks had departed, Mr Bostridge remaind on stage alone, looking broken and frozen in sorrow, despite the text that says the mother is freed from her madness.

Among other solo singers, Jeremy White’s Abbot was most impressive in his strong, dynamic and authoritative singing, with his warm bass introducing and concluding the proceedings, as well as adding gravity to the chorus. Neal Davies’ Traveller also excelled with his piercing and well supported singing, with vocal coloring expressing curiosity, sympathy and wisdom. It was at times difficult to understand Mark Stone as a gravelly voiced Ferryman, but he conveyed the gruffness as well as the kindness of a working man towards the Madwoman throughout the performance in his straightforward singing. The chorus of eight men and two boys sang their role as commentators/participants with restrained and focused elegance.

The musicians all played Britten’s at times challenging music with poise and beauty, and Martin Fitzpatrick provided strong leadership in both conducting and playing chamber organ. Despite the different ending of Curlew River (salvation) and Sumidagawa (despair), one is struck by how Britten created a unique masterpiece of haunting beauty and spirituality that manages to incorporate the elements of Eastern musical theater into Western religious tradition. The result is neither the East nor the West, but is uniquely Britten.