Britten 100: Presteigne Festival Britten/Beamish double-bill, WNO Youth Opera

Presteigne Festival: 21 August 2013:

Benjamin Britten – Curlew River
Sally Beamish – Hagar in the Wilderness

Nova Music Opera
Conductor – George Vass
Director – Richard Williams

WNO Youth Opera: 23 August 2013, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff:

Benjamin Britten – Paul Bunyan

Conductor – Alice Farnham
Director – Martin Constantin


This November sees the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten; the composer who, according to his sometime younger assistant and fellow composer Colin Matthews, ‘singlehandedly established opera in Britain – from a standing start’. Matthews himself has yet to write an opera and may never, but he and many composers who have come after Britten – particularly those who have followed the elder composer into certain mainstreams of English contemporary musical life – continue to feel his strong, lingering presence; arguably, a presence for ill as well as good (which former I am sure Matthews would protest as chairman of the Britten Estate and a trustee of the Britten-Pears Foundation). For Britten’s influence in many respects has been as far-reaching and dominant as his musical and dramatic signatures are individual and distinctive, and the combination has proved tricky to navigate for British composers – ‘post-romantic’ or otherwise (to use a catch-all but broadly evocative description) – who are ambitious to succeed in establishment terms, but also determined to cultivate their own unique compositional voice.

Numerous commentators have been tempted to overstate Britten’s ‘genius’ (and I personally salute WNO’s resistance to following the operatic crowd this year in choosing rather to celebrate his perhaps equal importance as a composer for young people). Undoubtedly, however, Britten has bequeathed us an exceptional body of work across a huge range of genres, quite apart from the many operas at which writing he excelled, and he continues to be the most frequently performed and globally widespread of British 20th century composers* – regardless of the sometimes wildly contrasting perceptions of his music from old-hat to avant-garde, held within his lifetime and beyond. At any rate, in capturing the public imagination, Britten succeeded brilliantly in walking a fine line not just musically but socially, as his left-leaning pacifism and dark operatic explorations of the excluded outsider somehow slipped beneath the ‘acceptability’ radar of an entranced, conservative middle England – often thinly disguising homosexual themes that would no doubt have been deplored if openly stated.

It is the strength of Britten’s musical characterisation and his quietly adept use of narrative pace and tension that continues to make his best operas compelling, far beyond the supposed literary merits of their libretti alone (including those by writers as eminent as William Plomer, who adapted the Japanese Nō play Sumidagawa by Jūrō Motomasa for Curlew River (Op.71, 1964) amongst other libretti for Britten, and W.H. Auden, who wrote the libretto for Paul Bunyan (Op.17, 1941)). Britten’s gift for social observation is acute and often combined with a depth of psychological insight that can be as devastating as it is subtle. Grief is just one of the complex emotions that he explores with intense, understated accuracy in many works, and which, indeed, underpins the story of Curlew River; the first of his three church parables, and performed this year as the first ever opera (in a short, chamber sense) at the Presteigne Festival by the enterprising young company Nova Music Opera under the clear baton of conductor (and Festival Director) George Vass.

Curlew River marked a new stylistic departure for Britten – albeit continuing his preoccupation with ‘outsiders’ (and, indeed, with abused children) – in which an already economical mode of expression was whittled down to truly spare music-dramatic means. Here, the benefits are manifold, as elements of the Nō Theatre Britten encountered in Japan in 1955-6 (and, before that, in 1938 courtesy of Ezra Pound’s English translation of a Nō play) are skillfully combined with a ritual, Christian sensibility to create a work all the more powerful for its leanness of conception. As with most Nō theatre – and, indeed, in common with many of Britten’s operas – there are no clear-cut heroes or villains per se, but rather ‘an attempt to provoke a delirium of wonder’ (as Daniel Albright has described Nō) through the nuanced, stylised telling of a largely abstract but mordantly suggestive tale. On this occasion, tenor Mark Milhofer proved equal to the task as a convincing Madwoman, tipped into insanity by the unbearable loss of her son. The supporting cast was uniformly solid, with Owen Gilhooly’s Ferryman, Christopher Foster’s Traveller and Stephen Holloway’s Abbot providing a thoughtful – and thought-provoking – foil, together with an instrumental septet of much more subtle hue than might be imagined by the oft-bandied term ‘orientalist’, with percussion, woodwind and heterophonic plainchant melody to the fore (Britten also utilised a self-described ‘controlled floating’ tempo and formal design that he struggled to notate and intended to be unconducted, but which was directed here by Vass with sensitivity and simple aplomb).

The work was ideally programmed for Presteigne’s St Andrew’s Church, (having been premièred at St Orford’s in Suffolk) and just wanted for a tighter, better conceived mise-en-scène; regarding lighting, for instance, the projection of a bright crucifix onto the wall felt somehow odd within the setting of an old church and other effects were partially obscured by the rood screen. But this did not detract from the overall success of the production and the dignity of the final redemption (an alteration by Plomer of Motomasa’s bleakly ending play at the graveside of the Madwoman’s abducted son), which was aided by the pure voice of soprano Kirsty Hopkins (rather than the more usual treble) as the boy’s arising Spirit.

Daunting and perhaps inspiring as Britten may be for younger generations of British composers, it must be challenging indeed, as well as thrilling, to be commissioned to write an opera intended to sit alongside Curlew River in his centenary year; which task Sally Beamish set about with characteristic professionalism in her short, chamber work, Hagar in the Wilderness, given its world première here at Presteigne before the performance of Britten’s parable. Beamish’s work is also a parable of sorts; at least, it too relates an instructive tale concerning an ‘outsider’, with themes common to the Britten of motherhood, loss and redemption. Beamish, too, has chosen a religious framework; indeed, her’s is considerably more overt than Britten’s as, by depicting the story of the outcast Hagar (sung with commendable spirit and clarity by Kirsty Hopkins) and Abraham’s bastard son Ishmael, she and librettist Clara Glynn direct attention squarely onto a figure who is often overlooked, but arguably of critical importance to three major religions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Alas, whilst Beamish’s score for five players is deftly crafted and beautifully ‘heard’ – and, moreover, was finely executed here by an excellent cast and Nova Music Opera Ensemble under Vass – it is required to bear the too heavy weight of simplistic moralising from the text. Glynn and Beamish’s concern to highlight social and political injustice, and to question the apparent whimsy of a cruel deity in at first refusing, then ultimately condescending to ‘stretch out his hand’, may be laudable and keenly felt, but their undoubted sincerity did not translate into emotional resonance or thematic depth on the stage. Certain aspects of the work’s deliberate ‘dryness’ did indeed feel apropos Hagar’s banishment to the desert; the deeper-toned viola and double-bass, for example (also found in the Britten, rather than the more predictable violin and ‘cello), unwound beneath ringing crotales and Curlew-inspired flute to evoke dark-toned, arid textures, whilst smartly avoiding direct stylistic references to Britten’s music – or, indeed, to familiar repertoire of the flute-viola-harp trio at the core of Beamish’s overall sonority here.

But there was no room for ambiguity in either narrative, characterisation or dialogue, and the stage setting misfired in portraying too literally various everyday scenarios without a corresponding thoughtfulness of dramatic treatment (the black wheelie-bag familiar to modern-day aircraft cabins was an unfortunate vehicle for Hagar’s ‘dispossessions’, so to speak, when a cloth sack – or even gestures – might have been less jarring to the design, and no more challenging of budgetary constraints). But much was packed into an intense thirty-five minutes, and Beamish’s vocal writing matched her instrumentation in confidence and poise, with Hagar’s supporting characters in Abraham and Gabriel well portrayed by Owen Gilhooly and Edmund Hastings respectively. The Festival, Nova Music Opera and the funders alike (the Britten-Pears Foundation) deserve credit for the commission – which I hope will be the first of many chamber operas to come at Presteigne.

The Britten-Pears Foundation were also generous contributors to another and wholly contrasting Britten centenary production in the form of his ‘choral operetta’, Paul Bunyan, performed two days later by the WNO Youth Opera in Cardiff; a work which unsuccessful première (at Columbia University in 1941) demonstrates how fraught the road to successful opera creation can be. Bunyan was Britten’s first ‘opera’ and his most ambitious collaboration with Auden, whom he first met in 1935, and its failure might well have contributed to their personal and artistic parting of the ways. Later, in a spirit of reconciliation upon Britten’s fiftieth birthday, Auden was to acknowledge that ‘I knew nothing about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence, some very lovely music of Britten’s went down the drain and I must now now make apologies to my old friend’ (this, of course, also coming long after Auden’s prodigious triumph with Stravinsky’s the Rake’s Progress in 1951).

Auden had left Britain for America with Christopher Isherwood in 1939 in response to the gathering conflict which would become World War II, and they were soon joined by Britten and Peter Pears. Bunyan was the result of a suggested schools commission for an operetta for young people to perform which, it was hoped, would lead to the work’s production on Broadway. In the event, the score got dumped in Britten’s bottom drawer after being largely panned by the American critics, until he was persuaded to revise the piece after extracts from it were warmly received at Aldeburgh in 1974 – the year after Auden’s unexpected death. Tonight’s WNO performance was of the resultant, revised work, which was hailed a success upon its performance in 1976 (coincidentally, the year Britten himself died).

However, the work remains problematic; not because of any supposed difficulty in defining whether it is an opera, or an operetta or a musical, say, in the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein (arguably, it’s all of these things and none the worse for that). But the libretto, which many American commentators found so patronising coming from two upstart young foreigners, has not aged well and the second half of the piece in particular lacks dramatic momentum. With this in mind, WNO should be congratulated for a superb production, in which the work’s darker dramatic undercurrents were subtly emphasized in combination with it’s musical strengths to both thought-provoking and entertaining ends.

Just how tongue-in-cheek Auden’s text was intended to be is impossible to gauge at such a distance in time, but the words veer from cod-philosophising to sheer doggerel, to dubious homilies to the combined, breezy forces of nature, capitalism and the birth of ‘the American way’:

‘It is a spring morning without benefit of young persons./ It is a sky that has never registered weeping or rebellion./ It is a forest full of innocent beasts. There are none who blush at the memory of an ancient folly, none who hide beneath dyed fabrics a malicious heart/ It is America but not yet./  Wanted … Men without foresight or fear … Energetic madmen … poets of the bottle … all who can hear the invitation of the earth … America … awaits the barbarians of marriage.’

Which first part is just so much hokum until one considers the plight of the Native Americans, for instance (surprisingly well documented by this time but nevertheless continuing to be airbrushed from history) and the fact that Paul Bunyan, far from being a simple ‘mythical hero’, was a figure who only reached a wider American public after being reworked by a logging company for an advertising campaign in 1914.

Fortunately, the team at WNO, from Director Martin Constantine to Producer Paula Scott, Designer Cai Dyfan and many others, seem to have made inspired use of such factors in presenting the piece – entirely without labouring any point – as a look at the dark underbelly of the American Dream and, indeed, they have given the piece contemporary resonance as a form of branding/advertising/soap opera/musical entertainment, ‘watched’ on tv throughout by the young Boy (the stalwart Henry Morris). Hence Stephen Fry, who narrates the (pre-recorded) off-stage voice of the logging magnate Bunyan (complete with occasionally dodgy American accent), looms truly giant from the back of the stage via video, and many of the crowd scenes (and there are many – this is an ensemble piece) seemed designed to capture that ambiguous place in which white-toothed wholesomeness blurs into hyperactive, primary-coloured nightmare. Which, to me, characterises the ambivalence of the ‘American Dream’ as a cultural ideal, as well as pointing the way to those themes of alienation and sociopathic dysfunction which Britten explored so brilliantly in later operas. At the same time, moreover, this production was also easy to enjoy as simple entertainment, making it an impressive, multilayered achievement for WNO Youth Opera in both conception and execution.

The score is a bricolage of various pastiche styles from the blues (the mirror opposite of the recurring happy ‘blue moon’ theme of the lyrics?) to vaudeville, ballad and more ‘authentic’, bitter-sweet Britten, and it was performed with confident panache by the WNO ensemble under the sure baton of conductor Alice Farnham. Auden is right, it seems to me; there is indeed some ‘very lovely’ music in Paul Bunyan and the uniformly excellent cast (Only Boys Aloud, directed by Tim Rhys-Evans, swelling the chorus of lumberjacks to huge proportions) were able to make the most of it thanks to several of the lesser solo parts being distributed amongst the singers, who took turns to deliver lines and perform Britten’s on-stage, guitar-backed ‘campfire’ songs.

The young singers were a joy to hear and to behold, showing great levels of commitment and vitality with some wonderful acting and neatly-judged humour. Joseph Gorvett as the Western Union Boy had an exceptional turn-on-a-bicycle, but many deserve equal praise, from Elgan Llyr Thomas’s beautifully poignant Jonny Inkslinger, to Ross Scanlon’s swaggering Slim, the bravado of Lukasz Karauda’s Hel Helson (with his comic Swedish henchmen, complete with Jedward hairdos) and on, to the fabulous cooks, animals, geese, trees and others.

For me, however, the musical highlight of the evening was delivered by Vanessa Bowers as Tiny in a quietly heart-rending lament to her dead mother upon arriving at her estranged father’s logging camp. Whatever Paul Bunyan may ultimately lack in dramatic veracity or structural sophistication, it seems that even here, through this brief snap-shot, Britten was able to portray grief of real substance. Perhaps the most affecting symbol from WNO’s production in this regard was the closing image of Jonny Inkslinger-turned gunslinger in an ironic sense, with his pistol cocked at his own temple.

On one level, Paul Bunyan could not be further from the later, sparse ritualism of Curlew River. And yet, ritual of a different social kind lies somehow at the heart of this piece too, in its depiction of intense, emotionally driven individuals, struggling to find their place within a complex group culture that would have been so different from Britten’s own. At root, though, beneath the glossy Americana, is the culture underlying Paul Bunyan so very alien from the life at sea or on the Fens that Britten went on to explore in the ordinary, working folk of later, more literally homespun operas? Perhaps in terms of the push and pull of personal rivalries, of battling the system, of love and friendship and the overriding common need to put bread on the table, the cultures of Britten’s England and his American sojourn might not be so different after all.



*The Royal Mint has just announced that Britten will be commemorated on 50p coins to be issued later this year. A fitting tribute, perhaps, to a composer whose royalties increased ‘by about 30% between 2007 and 2011’ according to his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes. He will be the first person since the Queen to have his full name appear on a coin.