At the Royal Academy of Music: Riders to the Sea & Curlew River

An evening watching a student production of two one-act English-language operas whose story arc is defined by the death of children through drowning is not going to be everyone’s idea of a good time. But the tickets were free, the venue 50 yards from my current workplace and the Royal Academy of Music opera postgraduates are probably a bit insulted to be referred to as ‘students’. And so they should be: this was an excellent evening’s entertainment.

The performance was presented in memory of Robert Tear, one of the first performers of the role of The Madwoman, a central character in Curlew River. Britten’s “church parable” was premiered in 1964 and is based on a fifteenth century Japanese noh play. The basic idea is that a group of monks enact a play in which a Ferryman is transporting a group of pilgrims across the river to visit a shrine, just as the boat is to depart the Madwoman appears seeking her son who has been missing for a year. Her son, it transpires, died here last year. As they pray at the graveside the ethereal child reassure his mother that they shall meet again in heaven. Her madness lifts and the monks return to being monks. Set out like this you can probably see that there are potentially major problems if the production or performances are out.

They were not. The principal roles – Ferryman, Traveller, Madwoman (Gareth John, Johnny Herford, Thomas Elwin respectively) – were spellbinding. The chorus behind them immaculate. And the production would not have been out of place on the stage of a professional company. The use of movement and shape to symbolise both emotion and place was well done throughout. The Christian redemption was all there but nothing was saccharine or simple. As you can tell, I liked this a lot.

Riders to the Sea was harder to love but this has nothing to do with the singing. Fundamentally, this J M Synge story of poor Irish folk drowning one by one makes me want to throw things at the stage. The libretto is full of Oirish English too. Thank whatever deity controls such things that the voices of Helen Bailey as Cathleen and Sara Lian Owen as Nora (the sisters who survive by not going within 100 yards of the sea) transcended such nonsense. Fiona Mackay as Maurya, the much bereaved wife and mother, was beautiful at the end when lamenting that the sea can no longer hurt her. I’m not really sure what the heck was going on with a torch, curtain and shadow at the finale as the production tried hard to move beyond the confines of the room in which the ‘action’ happens but I’ll forgive it because by then the emotional impact of the performances was overwhelming.

It’s startling to think that this group has only been together for three weeks since the start of term. The singing, to my untrained ear and ignorant mind, was superb. Also the clarity meant that every word could be heard properly. I’m a veteran of non-surtitled ENO performances so I can say with confidence that there are professionals out there unable to sing English as clearly as this. The other startling aspect: as I said at the start, this wonderful evening was completely free, gratis and cost nothing. At a time when the prices to sit at the back and not see the stage at Covent Garden are equalling the cost of a peak-rate London-Manchester train ticket in terms of value for money this is something to celebrate.

Although not too much because I want to be able to get in next time as well.

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