The Presteigne Festival has carved out a niche amongst Welsh Festivals (or, indeed, British festivals as a whole) for its largely contemporary programme of work. Around 85% of the music is either by living composers or composers active well into the second half of the last century and, instead of spelling disaster at the box office, draws a large appreciative audience to this sleepy little border town.

Mark Millhofer in Curlew River © Nova Musica 2013
Mark Millhofer in Curlew River
© Nova Musica 2013

The architect of this is the Festival’s Artistic Director, George Vass, very much in evidence as conductor in the course of a very lively seven days (21-27 August) of nearly thirty events. Its sense of community is abetted by the presence of featured composers and many informal talks and interviews – a vital key to establishing a bond between composer and audience. The same principle is also applied to many of the performers who, together with the resident Festival Orchestra and Sine Nomine International Touring Choir, are present throughout the Festival.

This year’s opening event is one of its most ambitious projects to date: a double bill of Curlew River, the first of Britten’s three church parables (1964) alongside Hagar in the Wilderness, a new commission by Scottish-based composer Sally Beamish and writer Clara Glynn. Curlew River is not one of the most frequently performed of Britten’s works and is an astute choice in this centenary year. Inspired by his encounter with Japanese Noh theatre in 1955, it now seems more rewarding than many of the operas: a simple retelling of the medieval Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa which, in William Plomer’s restrained libretto, is transferred to the Suffolk fenlands. It is perhaps the sparest and most spacious of Britten’s works, each musical idea pared down to its bare essentials with not a gesture wasted, its action moving at a pace that makes Wagner seem rather hasty.

Originally premièred at Orford Church, Suffolk, it fitted neatly into Presteigne’s St Andrew’s Church. Nova Music Opera, a London-based group that has existed in embryo for some years, have now blossomed into a more permanent organisation with this production. In its simplicity and restraint Richard Williams’s direction and Janey Gardiner’s design avoid being hidebound by the rather fussy tradition that Britten himself tried to establish whilst remaining faithful to his original vision.

In this music more weight is thrown on the singers than might usually be the case. Tenor, Mark Milhofer’s compelling performance and acting of the central role of the Madwoman (originally written for Peter Pears) held the audience with a rapt intensity. Owen Gilhooly’s Ferryman was softer and lighter voiced than usual but had the advantage of exposing the role’s more lyrical nature and depth of character. Both were supported by Christopher Foster’s dark-hued Traveller, Stephen Holloway’s weighty Abbot and, unusually, but very effectively, the voice of soprano Kirsty Hopkins, taking the role of the voice of the spirit. Fifty years ago Britten’s writing for the instrumental group of seven players posed a huge challenge for some of the leading players of the time, but, under George Vass’s unfussy and confident direction, the Nova Music Opera Ensemble pulled it off with ease, but also without ever breaking the underlying tension.

It would have been easy to make an evening of Curlew River alone, but it shows the seriousness of purpose of Nova Music Opera in commissioning a new chamber opera from Sally Beamish for the first half of the evening. Hagar in the Wilderness is a setting of the Old Testament story of Hagar and Abraham to a libretto by Clara Glynn. Wisely the setting did not seek to emulate the style of Curlew River and is a much more immediate dramatic experience, moving swiftly towards the revelatory intervention by God to save Hagar’s child. Beamish draws a wide range of colours and contrasts from her five piece ensemble and the three roles, admirably taken by Kirsty Hopkins in the title role, Owen Gilhooly (Abraham) and Edmund Hastings (Gabriel).