Friday 12 July 2013

The Britten Canticles, or, Musically Superb, Staging Mostly Mistaken

Britten's Five Canticles for various combinations of voice and instruments are not among his frequently performed works, and are certainly not often performed as a set. On the strength of this performance they should be done this way more often, but as straight concert performances.

All five works demonstrate Britten's skill in setting the English language. I was most haunted by the repeated refrain of “Still falls the rain” in the third Canticle, but in each one there is some moment to appreciate like God's call to Abraham which frames the second, or the way the three magi in the third repeatedly echo one another's remarks. Ian Bostridge, who I have not always enjoyed as a soloist, gives a superb performance in all five, making the most of the Linbury's resonant acoustic (the Royal Opera should consider more vocal recitals in there). He is ably supported vocally by Iestyn Davies and Benedict Nelson and with accompaniment from Julius Drake (piano), Richard Watkins (horn) and Sally Pryce (harp). Musically then this is another significant contribution to the Britten centenary.

Unfortunately, the enterprise is rather let down by the mistaken attempt of Neil Bartlett, Paule Constable and various other collaborators to add a staging. The bald fact of the matter is that all the drama and the image painting is there in the texts and the settings. These just are not works that need staging. The most effective (which isn't saying a great deal) is John Keane's film which accompanies Canticle III: Still falls the rain, though even here I found it a distraction from the music and overly repetitive in the images used. Paule Constable's 'staging' of Canticle IV: The Journey of the Magi also works, mainly because for the vast majority of the piece the three singers simply stand and deliver. The most flawed are the dance episodes attached to Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac and Canticle V: The Death of Narcissus. The choreography is uninspired and in both cases a distraction rather than a compliment to the music. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of the fifth canticle where the music fades to nothingness and yet the dancer is still whirling around, his feet making too much unnecessary noise for no dramatic gain.

One final point concerns the decision not to have surtitles. The Linbury acoustic is kinder to the words here than I gather the Maltings was, and the diction of the singers is generally very good, but there are still more words missing than is desirable, and the staging does little to fill in the gaps.

One final performance remains tonight and it is well worth queueing for returns...and once seated, closing your eyes.

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