Deborah Warner’s 60th anniversary production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River has received a flurry of five-star reviews from critics. The 71-minute work, the first of Britten’s ‘church parables’ was performed at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival at Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh on 21 and 22 June.

Ian Bostridge starred as the Madwoman – a role he performed to similar acclaim in 2013 in Netia Jones’ production of the work for the Barbican – alongside Willard White as the Abbott, Duncan Rock as the Ferryman, and Marcus Farnsworth as the Traveller. Audrey Hyland conducted instrumentalists drawn from the Britten-Pears Young Artist programme. The performances have been filmed for broadcast on BBC television in autumn 2024.

…a production of such blazing intensity that I emerged into the midsummer twilight feeling shocked, purged and uplifted all at once… Britten transferred the story to an East Anglian ferry crossing, and Warner beautifully evoked that too, without upstaging the silvery light and sublime carved angels of Blythburgh Church… Britten creates such a liminal sound world here, recognisably linked to plainsong yet with the instruments, partially unhinged from each other, evoking a more ethereal realm. It was perfectly realised here.

The Times (Richard Morrison), 24 June 2024 *****

The glowing white walls caught in the evening sunlight and the carved wooden angels above cast a spell, even before a note had sounded…The story…is simplicity itself, as was this excellent production by Deborah Warner. Christof Hetzer’s design centred on a rough wooden walkway, leading to a raised platform, which needed only a few props – a raised oar, two boys idly fishing – to suggest a ferry….All this was austere and dignified, as one expects, but the drama itself was rougher and stonier than I’ve ever seen it…instrumentalists incisively directed by Audrey Hyland shadowed the voices’ rise and fall in uncanny sounds of harp, high organ and sharp, sinister horn calls. This pitiless harshness meant that when the miracle occurs…the effect was all the more moving. Compassion flooded the drama, just as the sunlight flooded the church.

The Telegraph (Ivan Hewett), 23 June 2024 *****

Under the directorship of Audrey Hyland, the chamber musicians were most eloquent and the cast could hardly have been stronger…[Ian Bostridge] conveyed vividly the mother’s pain, his tenor voice these days altogether fuller-bodied, ringing out through the church and incredibly affecting…This was certainly an evening to reinforce the view that Curlew River itself constitutes a minor musical miracle.

The Guardian (Rian Evans), 24 June 2024  *****

Deeply moving staging of a visionary musical ritual…the elements of ceremony and mystery, of austerity and simplicity, are deeply entrenched…The cast is first rate…Bostridge projects the mother’s despair with visceral force and a vocal power that remains undiminished…With the whole church resounding with the music…when the monks process out at the end to plainchant singing, the effect is of a congregation-wide transformation.

The Stage (Edward Bhesania), 24 June 2024*****
 

Curlew River is the story of a woman, stricken by grief, searching for her missing son. Scored for flute, horn, viola, double bass, harp, percussion, and organ, as well as a male chorus and boy treble, Curlew River represented an experimental advance in Britten’s compositional technique, using short, decorative figures in solo instruments that are freely repeated and superimposed to create dynamic, unsynchronised layers.

The ‘Church Parable’ form – culminating in the creation of The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) – brought Noh theatre into dialogue with medieval Miracle Plays, English choral music traditions, and Britten’s attachment to the landscape of East Anglia – the titular curlew being a common sight on the marshes and reedbeds around the river Alde. Curlew River was presented this year alongside Motomasa Kanze’s Sumidagawa, the Japanese Noh play from which Britten and Plomer drew their scenario, at Snape Maltings on 18 June, alongside an English retelling of the piece by Xanthe Gresham-Knight.

Warner has previously created celebrated stagings of Britten’s Death in Venice (for English National Opera in 2013, screened at the Festival on 22 June) and the late cantata Phaedra, which will be revived in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Ballet and Opera in February 2025 as part of the double-bill Phaedra + Minotaur.

In April and May 2024 Landesbühnen Sachsen revived and toured Emily Hehl’s production of Curlew River, conducted by Thomas Gläser, which appeared in Radabeul, Aachen, Grove, and Leipzig. On 5 July  Stadttheater Gießen present a new production of the work from directors Kirsten Steeb and Lisa Florentine Schmalz, conducted by Andreas Schüller. It receives for performances as part of the Hessische Theatertage 2024 festival at Johanneskirche Gießen.