Sumidagawa is a fifteenth century Noh play, while Curlew River, a church parable, is an adaptation of it by Benjamin Britten – both will be performed at Christ Church Spitalfields, London on 7 September at 6:30 pm and at St Bartholomew in Orford, Suffolk on 9 September at 3:00 pm. Details can be found here.
Noh plays originated as religious performances, delivered in rural areas to please the gods who would be watching. Around the 6th century they became secular, as the arrival of Buddhism meant that Shinto performances started to lose their high standing in society. Masks are worn by the performers, made of cypress wood and painted white, with bold, black marking for the eyebrows. The singing style tends to be shrill and wavering, which can make it seem quite inaccessible to western audiences – but those who keep open minds are treated to an intriguing and incredibly unique form of art.
Sumidagawa, or The Sumida River is a Noh play written in the fifteenth century by Kanze Motomasa. The plot follows a “madwoman” who is searching for her child, who went missing around one year prior. She is supposedly in distress to the point of insanity, and carries a sasa bamboo branch to symbolise this. When she attempts to cross the Sumida River by ferry, the ferryman does not want to let her on board due to her madness. However, when she explains her story, the passengers feel pity for the woman and convince the captain to let her on board. During the journey, the captain explains how a child arrived around the area about a year ago, and suffered acts of meaningless cruelty by some of the locals, and eventually died. It was such a catastrophic event that pilgrims continued to visit his grave to pray. The mother eventually realises that this is her son, and finds herself in front of his grave. As she prays, the ghost of the child appears, but disappears at dawn. The audience is left wondering whether the boy really appeared or whether the mother imagined it.
Benjamin Britten saw this play while he was visiting Japan, and it was the inspiration for Curlew River, which is a Christian adaptation of the story of Sumidagawa. Described as a “church parable” rather than an opera by Britten himself, the music he composed for this is not easy on the ears, as it uses the vocal style of Noh theatre as its inspiration. No conductor is involved for the instrumentalists, with the lead instrument changing throughout and dictated by the score. Without a conductor, Britten was free from a universal time signature, and as a result wrote different parts in different times – which gave rise to the musical notation symbol, the “Curlew sign”, which instructs the parts to resynchronise at that point, and for one part to repeat the previous notes or phrases ad lib until the other reaches that point as well. The plot is largely the same as the Noh play, with the mother’s visitation from her child’s ghost cleansing her of her madness, with a dramatic “Amen” being sung by the actor of the mother. The whole performance uses just five solo singers, with a chorus of pilgrims behind them, and it was premiered at St Bartholomew in Orford on 13th June 1964.
The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation is supporting this production of Sumidagawa and Curlew River.
Text by Dan Stanyon