SPRINGFEST REVIEW: Curlew River

The centrepiece of this year s Hampstead and Highgate Springfest, Benjamin Britten s Curlew River was if nothing else a proof of what a spectacular venue the restored St Stephen s is turning into. Grandly atmospheric in the gathering dark, it was perfect

The centrepiece of this year's Hampstead and Highgate Springfest, Benjamin Britten's Curlew River was if nothing else a proof of what a spectacular venue the restored St Stephen's is turning into.

Grandly atmospheric in the gathering dark, it was perfect for this stylised church opera about a woman driven mad by the adbuction of her child - and the peace she finds in discovering that, although the child is dead, its spirit can return to her.

In Britten's hands, it's a timeless liturgical drama played out by monks as a meditation on Christian grace. But the director here, Sebastian Harcombe, added the contemporary, secular mime of a Madeleine McCann scenario.

And, whatever initial reservations you might have about that, it was done with a sensitivity and restraint that took nothing away from the hypnotic power of the piece and actually intensified its impact.


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Curlew River, with its monks and ritual solemnity, can feel emotionally distant. Bring on a distraught young mother clutching a child's toy and it zooms into closer focus.

Musically, it's an incredibly demanding score, purpose-written with blurred outlines that sound awry unless observed with meticulous care. And there were times here when it was obvious that more rehearsals would have boosted the ensemble's confidence.

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But that said, it was still impressive, held together by conductor George Vass with unflustered technical control.

The soloists were magnificent, with singing of first-rank international quality from Andrew Slater as the gruff, imperious Ferryman and Robert Murray in a paradigm example of how to bring transvestite dignity to the role of the Madwoman.

A striking vocal cameo too from Hampstead schoolboy Harry Smouha as the spirit of the child.

A show like this completely vindicates the Hampstead and Highgate Festival as a local cause and demonstates what we'd be losing if we let it go.

Its future, as things stand, is less than certain. Time to rally round.

Michael White

St Stephen's, Rosslyn Hill

Sunday May 10

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