Britten’s experiment is at first off-putting and hard to take.
It’s a play within a play, performed by priests, so we have to contend simultaneously with, on one hand, extreme churchy seriousness plus, on the other hand, a female lead played by a man with a shawl over his head. The mash-up of stylized Japanese Noh and stylized medieval Mystery Play teeters on the edge of camp.
The music is also challenging: mostly austere vocal solo cantillation accompanied by a few bongo taps or French horn bleats. It’s a million miles away from Britten’s popular mode of Noye’s Fludde. Sonically it traverses centuries and the globe, from plainsong to Sixties avant-garde to Westernized East. It seems extremely out of step with the era of Mad Men, but at the same time Stravinsky was also working in a Biblical medieval/high-modernist vein, with his Sermon, Narrative and Prayer (1961), Flood (1962) and Abraham and Isaac (1963). Something going on there.
There were some ravishing moments when the singers stepped up to the plate. Reid Bruton was an appropriately sententious Abbott/Narrator. Almost exactly a year ago, Abdiel Gonzalez stopped the show with his devastating lament in Gabriela Lena Frank’s The Singing Mountaineers at Disney Hall, and here he basically did the same thing as the Traveler.
But the whole thing didn’t really come alive until Dean Elzinga’s extended solo, when the Ferryman tells the story of the little refugee boy who died at the riverbank a year earlier. Suddenly the strangeness faded away, and the drama took hold.
Of course the Madwoman riding in the Ferryman’s boat turns out to be the poor boy’s mother. Her shock, at hearing the news is so extreme that it renders her sane. Steven Tharp managed the impossible Madwoman part heroically.
From this point on, there was no camp distraction. It became a wholly earnest dramatization of forgiveness and peace.