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date: 20 February 2020

Curlew Riverlocked

  • Arnold Whittall


Parable for church performance by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by William Plomer; Orford Church, Suffolk, 12 June 1964.

This is the first of Britten’s three ‘parables’, single-act chamber operas of about an hour’s duration for a small group of male singers and instrumentalists (23 performers in all, in the case of Curlew River), dressed as monks or lay brothers, and performing without conductor. Though inspired by Japanese noh theatre (Curlew River derives its plot from the play Sumidagawa, which Britten saw in Tokyo in 1956), the parables are made specifically Christian by their texts and modes of presentation. They are notable for their close coordination of movement, gesture and music, and provide clear evidence of Britten’s disenchantment, in the 1960s, with many aspects of conventional opera. The music, deriving from the plainchant of a framing processional hymn, is both more concentrated in form and less dependent on conventions of tonal harmony than in Britten’s earlier operas....

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