Opera Scotland

Curlew River

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Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)


William Plomer


Japanese Noh drama Sumidagawa by Juro Motomasa (1395-1431)



First Performance: Orford Church (Orford, Suffolk), 12 June 1964.

First Performance in Scotland: to be confirmed.

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



Curlew River is a chamber-scale stage work which Britten described as a 'Parable for Church Performance', the idea being to represent a group of medieval monks performing a kind of mystery play on the simplest of sets, with all solo roles, including females, played by men. Its success was such that the idea was extended to include two more,  The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son. The staging relied on dramatically colourful costuming. The music, for chamber ensemble, relied on the development of a fascinating soundworld arrived at by Britten in collaboration with the veteran percussionist James Blades.

While the later Parables used biblical stories as their source material, Curlew River, perhaps the most successful of the three, took as its source one of the medieval Japanese Noh plays. The apparent incongruity of the translation to an East Anglian setting works fascinatingly well. The Japanese title means simply Sumida River, so Curlew River is an appropriately mournful equivalent for a Fenland location.



Madwoman (tenor)

Ferryman (baritone)

Traveller (baritone)

Spirit of the Boy (treble)

Abbot (bass)


Plot Summary

The monks enter in procession. The abbot advises the congregation that a play is to be performed. The Ferryman says that he is carrying people across the river to a grave which is believed to have healing powers. The Traveller says that a woman is approaching who seems to be mad, and other people are laughing at her. The Madwoman says she is searching for her young son whom she believes to have been kidnapped. The Ferryman tells of an incident a year ago, when a boy, said to be a slave, was abandoned by his owner in a weak state, and died at this spot. He is now believed to be a saint, but it becomes clear from the Madwoman's words that this was her boy. She prays at the graveside, and a vision of the boy appears. She is able to recover from her madness, while the child is now able to rest in peace.

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