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Curlew River and Sumidagawa


September 24, 2012 by IPAlchemist

A few weeks ago I went to a very special performance – one of those events that makes you glad that you live in London, because the number of cities in the world where this is likely to happen are rather limited.

Tokyo University of the Arts decided to come to England to put on Benjamin Britten’s piece Curlew River, preceded by the Noh play upon which it is based, Sumidagawa.

Even better for those of a geeky disposition, the Daiwa Foundation, to which my colleague Stephen Scott had just introduced me (he went to Japan as a scholar of the Daiwa Foundation), organised a lecture by two fascinating people: the Noh actor, Professor Sekine, who played the shite part, and Dr Mukai, a lecturer at the University.

Professor Sekine is a leading performer of the Kanze school of Noh (one of four extant schools, and the largest).  He is a living national treasure, and a Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts.  Noh plays are always written to have one leading part, called the “shite” (in this case the madwoman), which he played in the performance, and one main supporting part, the “waki” (in this case the ferryman).  He explained about the history of Noh, the philosophy of the performance, and some basic meanings of some of the movements and gestures.

Dr Mukai is a specialist on Britten, and he gave fascinating insights into how Curlew River had developed, including the itinerary of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears when they visited Japan in 1956. It seems that they saw not one, but two performances of Sumidagawa whilst they were there.

It was fascinating to learn that, although the dramatic style and form of the Curlew River are drawn from the feeling of the Noh play, the actual music is based not so much on Noh music but on Japanese Gagaku music. This is a court music, which uses different instruments from Noh itself, and which Britten and Pears also heard when they were in Japan. In particular, Britten uses the chamber organ to allude to the sound of the Sho, which is a multi-piped wind instrument, which is used in Gagaku but not in Noh.

A few days later was the performance itself. This took place in the spectacular Spitalfields church, a Hawksmoor masterpiece which has been recently restored, and which I have passed many times, but never been into before.

The Noh play came first. I have experienced Noh before, because the father (Ohtsubo-sensei) of my Japanese teacher (Uemura-sensei) when I lived in Japan was a professional Noh actor, and I went to see him perform several times. Uemura-sensei had very kindly emailed me some information about the performance beforehand. Although her father Ohtsubo-sensei is from the Hosho School of Noh, whereas the performance here was from the Kanze School, the differences are not I think such that an novice like me would really notice.

Watching the piece, I felt the same as every time I see a Noh play a strange peacefulness and tranquillity of watching an art form which is clearly survived from ancient times (Sumidagawa was written in the early 1400s). The performing style is extremely minimalist, and, in one sense, very little happens. In another sense, you get the feeling that every single movement, however slight, is precisely planned and meaningful. Not that I felt most of the time that I could understand the meaning. Prof Sekine had indicated the meanings of some of the gestures, for example raising the hand to the face in order to indicate crying. But many remained deeply mysterious. But I can see just why Britten would have found the whole experience are amazing, and would want to have drawn upon it himself.

After a break, there was then the performance of Curlew River. Although this is a very English piece, the main singers were Japanese. Are very good they were too. I was particularly struck by Jun Suzuki, the tenor who plays the Madwoman.  (Britten made the cast all-male, as is the case with most Noh performances, with men playing the women’s parts – this of course gave him the chance to give the leading part to Peter Pears).

I haven’t explained the story. The story of both pieces is basically the same: a Madwoman meets a Ferryman at a river, who tells her of the story of a boy who has died in the area a year ago, and the Madwoman then realises that this is her son who was kidnapped, and who she has travelled a long distance to find.  She is distraught to realise that he has died. Both of the pieces seem to speak of the restorative power of a belief in the supernatural, whether buddhism or christianity.  (Incidentally, Prof Sekine said that the woman is not “mad” but only as concerned as a mother would naturally be under the circumstances).  Interestingly, Britten calls the piece a “Church Parable” not an opera or similar.

One of the live issues about Sumidagawa is whether the ghost of the dead boy appears.  In some performances he does, in others only his voice is heard.  Apparently in the Hosho school he usually would appear; in the performance we saw he (although actually it was played by a girl) remains concealed in the funeral mound, so only the voice appears.  In Curlew River, the boy does appear physically.  Either way round, I had goosebumps at this point in both performances.

I slightly blush that Curlew River was performed at New College, Oxford when I was a student there, and I didn’t go. I don’t quite remember why, but I think I may have thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. Actually, it is an amazing piece with incredible musical textures. So I’m now looking out for an opportunity to see it again. However, the side-by-side performance with the Noh play which inspired it is probably something that I am unlikely to come across again, so it is an experience that I shall treasure.

1 comment »

  1. […] Emiko, who is an expert on Japanese Noh drama, informed me that the lion dance piece is also performed in the Noh tradition, but that “in Noh, we do it with masks”.  I love “we do it with masks” as the distilled quintessence of the distinction between the earlier, more formal, Noh theatre, and the later Kabuki tradition.  (For my feelings about Noh, which I also love, see my earlier post here.) […]

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