Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 1927 one-act opera Riders to the Sea, which Juilliard Opera performs in a double bill on December 9, 11, and 13, is an almost verbatim transcription of Irish writer John Millington Synge’s play of the same name. Set in the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, the story revolves around Maurya (sung here by mezzo Lacey Jo Benter), the mother of a desperately poor family whose tragedy seems incomprehensible: the sea has claimed the lives of Maurya’s husband, her father-in-law, and five of her six sons. Only two daughters and one son, Bartely (baritone Emmett O’Hanlon), remain. When Bartely decides to sail to the Galway Fair to sell his horse, Maurya has a vision that he will join the other male family members in death, a prophecy that comes to pass. “They’re all gone now,” Maurya says in her haunting final monologue. “There isn’t anything more the sea can do to me. ... I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.” (Coincidentally, Juilliard Drama is performing The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is also set in the Aran Islands, a few days before the double bill.)
Curlew River (1964), the first of Benjamin Britten’s three so-called church parables and the second half of the December double bill, takes its inspiration from a decidedly different source. In 1956, the composer traveled to Japan, where he encountered the formalized rituals and spare, distilled style of Noh theater for the first time. In particular, it was a performance of the 14th-century play Sumidagawa that had a profound effect on him. Britten remarked on that performance in a note that accompanied the first edition of the published libretto. “The whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action … the mixture of chanting, speech, singing,” he wrote. “It was all a totally new ‘operatic’ experience.” Some years later, Britten’s librettist, William Plomer, suggested an operatic adaption of the tale.
Plomer changed the setting of story from ancient Japan to a fictional medieval location on England’s Suffolk coast and filtered its themes through a distinctly Christian lens, notably by marrying the ritualistic aspects of Noh with the tradition of the medieval liturgical music drama. (Perhaps because of this unlikely union, the Britten scholar Peter Evans called Curlew River “the least predictable work the composer had written for many years.”) As in most of Britten’s operas, Curlew River dwells on the role of outsiders and the stigma brought on by conventional mores and societal self-righteousness. The main character, a Madwoman (sung by tenor Kyle Bielfield), is on a quest to find her lost son, whom she has not seen in more than a year. After learning that the boy was kidnapped and enslaved—and eventually died—the Madwoman accepts the news: her madness lifts and she is redeemed.
In spite of strikingly different sources of inspiration, “Both Curlew and Riders address the terrible feeling of loss experienced by a mother when a child dies,” Mark Shapiro, the conductor of the double bill, recently told The Journal. “But there are significant differences: one family is noble, another poverty-stricken; one family loses a young child to slavery and illness, whereas another loses many older children to the sea. Each mother follows a different path to peace and reconciliation. The two operas complement one another beautifully.”
Vocal Arts faculty member John Giampietro is directing the double bill in the black-box setting of the Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater. He elaborated, “The evening is conceived as a whole, not just the presentation of two separate pieces. We are presenting it in the round, with audience on all sides of the playing area. This way the audience will be closer to the performers and have a more intimate connection with the storytellers. The instrumentalists will also be onstage and folded into the action to emphasize their part in the storytelling.”
In keeping with Noh tradition, the four-person cast of Curlew River is all-male. (The role of the Madwoman was created by Britten’s longtime partner Peter Pears, en travesti.) Riders to the Sea, by contrast, features an all-female cast, with the exception of the role of Maurya’s last son, Bartely. “Both scores are richly atmospheric, achieving haunting results using a variety of harmonic and textural devices,” Shapiro explained. “But the pieces are also very different. Curlew uses a brilliantly deployed sparseness to achieve its effects; it is almost entirely unmetered, and its musical flow depends on unbroken listening and concentration among the performers. It is as much of an ensemble piece as anyone ever wrote,” he said. “Riders is more traditionally romantic in spirit. The singing quality of the text as well as the nautical setting inspired the composer to write rolling lines and waves of orchestral sound.” (Alum Adam Nielsen will perform a piano rendering of the score.) “The soundscape is less about feeling than about landscape: the omnipresence of the sea,” Shapiro added.
This sense of thematic and musical synergy between the two operas has informed Giampietro’s approach to working with his cast of young singers. “In a sense it really is their production,” he said. “Their talent is a given, but they are also all extraordinary people with so much thought and heart to offer. We work in a very collaborative way, exploring ideas, developing movement. I try to create a system of rehearsal that encourages them to follow their own impulses to reach the truth of a moment, giving them ownership of the material, their characters, and ultimately the performance itself.”