Benjamin Britten had already composed many of his best-known operas when, in 1964, he began writing a trio of works he called “parables” — religiously themed music theater pieces designed to be performed in churches rather than opera houses. All three have a ritualistic feel matching their clerical setting, as well as a sparse, thinned-out musical language that would characterize Britten’s work for much of the last decade of his life.
The first of the parables, “Curlew River,” was staged by the young Enigma Chamber Opera company on Friday. Written for an all-male cast (dressed as monks and acolytes), it was based on a Japanese noh play Britten saw when he visited the country in the 1950s. It tells the story of the distraught Madwoman, in search of her lost child, who joins a group of passengers crossing the river to see the grave of a child who died the previous year. During the journey, the Ferryman tells the story of how the child was abducted and then left for dead along the river. To her horror, the Madwoman realizes that the child is her missing son; as her grief reaches its apex, the spirit of the boy appears, telling her that they will meet again in heaven.
To accompany the drama, Britten created music whose novelty and invention make an intriguing clash with its anachronistic setting. The score, for seven players, is designed to be played without a conductor, the voices and instruments locking together seamlessly. The same motifs are often played simultaneously at different speeds — a technique called heterophony — which subtly reinforces the dramatic narrative. Some brief East Asian references nod to the work’s Japanese inspiration.
The somewhat didactic religious message and the cloistered trappings would seem to make “Curlew River” an odd fit for our times. But Enigma artistic director Kirsten Cairns had other ideas. In brief pre-performance remarks, she mentioned rethinking its conceit, so that the performers appeared not as members of a monastic sect but as a group of men who had all undergone some form of trauma. A meeting for survivors, or perhaps a group home.
So this performance may have been in a church — the beautiful Cathedral of St. Paul, near Boston Common — but it wasn’t of the church. For examples, rather than process into the chapel, as Britten directs, Cairns had the singers simply stand up from where they had been sitting among the audience — masked, just like the rest of us — and begin the plainchant that opens the piece. The message was clear: They’re just like us.
By stripping “Curlew River” of its ecclesiastical trappings, Cairns very effectively reframed its message. In Britten’s conception, the Madwoman attains peace through God’s grace. In this austere production, by contrast, it arises through community and connection. The parable is the Madwoman’s rite of initiation into a group of broken individuals, and peace comes through the presence and support of fellow sufferers. We all grieve, but by sharing the burden, we move forward. Not incidentally, this reformulation made the piece seem wholly relevant to beginning to edge back to normalcy after a pandemic.
None of this messaging would have been successful without uniformly superb performances by the singers. Tenor Matthew DiBattista was outstanding as the Madwoman, the very portrait of intense yet dignified anguish. Aaron Engeberth’s Ferryman told most of the story in a rich, powerful baritone. Paul Soper admirably stepped in at the last moment to take on the role of the Abbot for an indisposed James Demler. Twelve-year-old Linus Schafer Goulthorpe made an affecting appearance as the spirit of the boy. The music was superbly played by the seven-person ensemble, with Edward Elwyn Jones giving understated direction from the organ.
Music by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by William Plomer, from the medieval Japanese noh play “Sumidigawa River”by Jūrō Motomasa. Directed by Kirsten Z Cairns.
Presented by Enigma Chamber Opera.
At Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Friday.