Britten: The Canticles, Theatre Royal, Brighton – review

Nearly 40 years after his death, we are still nowhere near knowing the breadth and depth of Britten’s output. That is why his centenary may prove useful. It offers a chance to illuminate the corners of his oeuvre, and see how their quieter glow has a no less durable force. So it is with the five Canticles, written across a wide span of his creative life and little known beyond Britten cognoscenti.

In that context, this performance – the first ever staging of music intended for the concert platform – can do nothing but good. Commissioned by the Brighton Festival and Aldeburgh Music, it will visit the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre on July 10, 11 and 12, with the same excellent cast of musicians led by Ian Bostridge: a properly festive celebration for the Britten year.

Take away the evangelising veneer, however, and we find a flawed exercise. These cantatas are so dramatic in themselves that there is little a visual interpretation can do, except foul the imaginative thrust of the poetry. A further flaw in this stage incarnation was to assign each Canticle to a different director. There was no sense of an overarching dramatic logic. The more distracting the visuals, as in Neil Bartlett’s perfunctory sketch of gay partnership in “My Beloved Is Mine” or John Keane’s illustrative film of air bombing for “Still Falls the Rain”, the weaker the impact of the words.

Scott Graham’s choreographic exploration of father-son love in “Abraham and Isaac” at least had the virtue of gentle expressiveness, and Wendy Houston’s take on “The Death of Saint Narcissus” – a spinning dancer – just about kept the music in the spotlight. The most effective was the one where the director interfered least – Paule Constable’s luminous “Journey of the Magi”.

Bostridge, with Julius Drake on piano and Sally Pryce on harp (plus Iestyn Davies and Benedict Nelson in supporting vocal roles), sang with such focus on the inner drama that the words spoke for themselves – no more than when declaiming T.S. Eliot’s reference to “a dancer before God [who] seemed to tread on faces, convulsive thighs and knees”. Who needs anything to compete with that?

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