Curlew River, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

A small miracle by the riverside
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Benjamin Britten often demonstrated a particular sureness of touch when working within a smaller frame. Limitations of scale, in fact, could fire him up and send him off in fascinating directions - as with the creation of the first of his "church parables", Curlew River, premiered in 1964.

Britten looked a long way east for the inspiration for the piece. In 1956 he went to Japan, where the impact of the Noh drama Sumidagawa set off a new train of musico-dramatic thought within him. It was partly the highly stylised dramatic manner of Noh that attracted him, and partly the way it employed instrumental music as an essential constituent. The result is no pale imitation of Noh, nor is there anything fake-oriental about it. But as an attempt to combine some of the qualities of the original with those of an English medieval mystery play, Curlew River proved an outstanding and far-reaching success.

Framed by the device of monks chanting plainsong, the short narrative tells of a mad woman searching for her lost son, a child that disappeared a year ago. When she arrives at Curlew River, the ferryman tells her about a kidnapped, ill-treated boy, who died and was buried near the river bank. Pilgrims now flock to his tomb as a healing shrine. There the spirit of the dead child appears to his mother and in a final sign of grace her sanity is restored.

The moment when the child's voice is first heard, transfigured by Britten's luminous orchestration, is spine-chilling, and indeed his use of an instrumental ensemble of just seven musicians is masterly throughout. The quality of the playing in this Edinburgh Festival production, under the musical direction of Garry Walker, is superb, making a significant contribution to the dramatic as well as the musical realisation of the piece.

Olivier Py's staging capitalises on the blend of the ritualistic and the naturalistic inherent in the piece itself. Within Pierre-André Weitz's highly adaptable black-on-black set, the actors dress and make themselves up before moving into a simple and direct realisation of the central mystery. Toby Spence, covering his face with red paint and donning a straggly black wig, sings the role of the Madwoman with an imaginative variety of tone that never compromises the essential beauty of his lyric tenor. William Dazeley takes on the central narrative role of the Ferryman, and has the audience hanging on his every word. Tim Mirfin's Abbott is realised with a strong and confident presence and a bass voice to match. Neal Davies's Traveller is both edgy and alert, and there's a beautiful presentation of the child from Max Thomson.

The sum total is a powerful experience that gains in intensity right up to the final emotional release of the miracle.

Anna Picard is away

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