"It's kind of a perfect double-bill tragedy." That's how choreographer and director Mark Morris describes his program next week at Tanglewood. In the first half, Morris will direct fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in Benjamin Britten's rarely staged "Curlew River," which tells the story of a madwoman in search of her missing child. After intermission, Morris's dance company will join the TMC for his version of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," which has become one of Morris's most enduring creations since its1989 premiere.
The pairing, which was the brainchild of the TMC's director, Ellen Highstein, is in part a recognition of the Britten centenary being observed this year. But there is also a network of connections and contrasts between them. Britten, as Morris pointed out in a phone conversation, was "a gigantic devotee" of Purcell's music (though Morris also said that he found Britten's recorded version of Dido "close to boring"). Each work is about an hour long and dominated by the presence of a tragic heroine.
Yet the incongruity between the two is crucial in making the program work. "Dido," Morris explained, "is extremely concise and has a huge amount of action packed into a very strict period of time." "Curlew River," which was based on a Japanese Noh drama, is deliberate, even meditative. "Everyone's telling what's happening, as opposed to doing what's happening," Morris said.
"Curlew River" is itself one of the oddest entries in Britten's catalog. It originated in the composer's visit to Japan in 1956. There he saw a performance of a Noh play called "Sumidagawa" ("The Sumida River") in which a ferryman reluctantly transports across the river a woman who went mad several years before when her son was kidnapped. As they cross, the ferryman tells of a young boy who came to the river a year ago, having escaped from bandits. He died from exhaustion, though, on reaching the other side. Of course, it is the woman's son, and she begins to cry. The ferryman brings her to the grave of the boy, who appears after she invokes the Buddha. The woman is left disconsolate.
When he asked his friend William Plomer to adapt it into a libretto, Britten, a devout Christian, decided to transform it into a medieval Christian mystery play, and the resulting piece is labeled a "church parable" rather than a chamber opera. Plomer stuck to the basics of the plot but made at least one major change: At the transformative moment, the child's voice reassures his mother that, thanks to God's grace, they will meet again in heaven, and at that moment she is freed from her madness.
Even with this dramatic alteration, "Curlew River" deftly melds together Japanese and Anglican traditions. All 13 singers are male, as they would have been in both a mystery play and a Noh drama. And there is a solemn, ritualistic sense also common to both.
The score is inflected with hints of Japanese music — or, as Morris puts it, "[Britten's] version of Japanese, which is not Japanese, but it's pretty interesting." There are seven musicians, all of them playing on the side of the stage without a conductor. Often different instrumentalists will be playing at different tempos; elsewhere, a player will repeat a phrase ad lib, until synchronicity among the singers and players can be reestablished.
It's a challenge, Morris said, both to organize musically and to stage compellingly. At the time of the interview, he had just finished the first of three weeks of rehearsals. "It's quite a difficult production and they're doing great," he said of the performers. "They're all young, smart, eager musicians who aren't sick of music yet."
In contrast to the sheer newness of "Curlew River," "Dido" is so well ensconced in the company's repertoire that it was being rehearsed in New York while Morris was at Tanglewood working on the Britten. "It goes together very smoothly without me, and then I just clean it up a little and it's ready to go."
In the last few years Morris has been conducting "Dido" performances, though Stefan Asbury, who was one of Morris's coaches when he was learning to conduct, will be on the podium at Ozawa Hall. "I kind of thought I might have a nervous breakdown if I did all of that on opening night," Morris said. "And then the next night is closing night. I would be spread a little too thin."
So at Tanglewood, Morris will be happy to assume the role of a spectator. Having danced in and conducted the production, "I didn't get a chance to watch it much." Asked if he was looking forward to doing so, he said, "Absolutely. And I don't get nervous because there's not much I can do."