Saturday, November 28, 2009

Noh way

Isn't it great when you learn to appreciate something you at first couldn't appreciate at all? Had that experience this afternoon listening to Benjamin Britten's Curlew River. I saw this "church parable" - a kind of chamber opera intended for performance in a church - performed in Berlin years ago (not in a church but in a culture center in a converted brewery), but it seemed to me then neither fish nor fowl. I went to see it because it was described as an adaptation of the Noh drama Sumidagawa, which sounded intriguing. (Like Britten, I saw Sumidagawa performed in Japan, looking like the scene below.) But the costumes were low-budget samurai movie and the music didn't sound right: was this supposed to sound Japanese? It just sounded weird. This time, listening to a recording with Peter Pears (in the picture above) and knowing that the story was not supposed to be Japanese but to take place in the Christian middle ages, I found it to be fish and fowl. It's haunting and wondrous, with the eeriness and sorrow of the Noh and the pathos and hope of a medieval mystery play. Dramatically, musically and even religiously it's a fascinating adaptation - which is why I was listening. For it's time again to think about Religion & Theater, which my friend C and I teach again this coming semester! I'm pushing for a refined structure from last time, which for all the fascinating material we covered proved too episodic for many students. Instead, we'll have thematic units, each on a religious studies theme but centered on a particular play. Over three or four classes we'll discuss the religious and dramatic background of the play, religious issues it explores, how the play was understood and performed at its time and in our own - and how it has been adapted or emulated or transformed by later artists. This is where Curlew River will come in. (Several interesting new productions, true to Britten's intention, are available online, including the one from Festival Retz 2006 below that's actually performed in a church.) It's not only a remarkable amalgam, and a reminder that medieval religious traditions are still powerful, but it raises fascinating questions about the way ideas or traditions move from one religious world to another. Sumidagawa is a Buddhist story; Curlew River a Christian one. What are we to make of the replacement of Amida and the Pure Land with Christ and heaven? Is the message the same in both traditions? Or perhaps what's shared is a mood...! Should make for a good discussion!

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