Britten's five Canticles remain a relative rarity in the concert hall, but it's not obvious why: his native austerity is combined in these works with a religious simplicity and Anglican sweetness resulting in some of the most direct and immediately accessible pieces in his output. Composed across his career, they fall roughly inline with the operatic output - Canticle I and II around the time of his greatest fertility (approximately, Grimes to the Turn of the Screw), Canticle III a slight hardening into the late-middle operas, Canticle IV sits among the exhausted inspiration of the late 60's and early 70's, and Canticle V is fully in line with the gentle, veiled renewal of Death in Venice and the other late masterpieces.
These pieces were all written for Peter Pears and it seems almost surprising that music that was written explicitly to fit such a singular and unusual voice could be rendered as convincingly by another artist, but so it was here. Ian Bostridge's voice is just as unconventional as Pears's, albeit in a very different way: the almost exclusive use of headvoice, the long stretches of vibratoless yet satisfyingly full and warm sound, the sculpted, leaning phrases and endless tonal shading all conspire to produce one of the easily identifiable vocal personalities singing today. I saw him recently doing the Evangelist in a St. John Passion (not reviewed) and I found it showed up his "home-made" technique in uncomfortable relief, but here the match of singer and repertoire was perfect. Indeed if I ever hear Abraham and Isaac (Canticle II) as ravishingly or movingly sung as this in my life I will count myself very lucky indeed. This one was the clear highlight of the evening, Bostridge's voice blending seamlessly (oh, that overused phrase, but for once entirely appropriate!) with Iestyn Davies's beautiful countertenor (the best I've ever heard him) during the "voice of God" moments, and then in moving counterpoint as father and son.
Surprisingly Bostridge's diction was very muzzy throughout, and first I questioned myself because of his fame for pointing the text, but then when Iestyn Davies arrived for the second Canticle, crystalline of voice, crisp of diction, I realised that I wasn't hearing things. Usually this would bother me greatly, but the intention was always so clear, and the voice so beautiful that I didn't mind this time, despite the lack of subtitles.
Not originally conceived as "dramatic" works, this staging was simple to the point of austerity, and sometimes regrettable obviousness. The first My Beloved Is Mine is staged as a repressed relationship between two young men from the 40's sitting at a dinner table - the parallel with Britten and Pears here was an example of the too obvious I thought. Abraham and Isaac was more successful, a dance piece with god represented by a group of men dancing in unison, and the father and son of Bostridge and Davies mirrored by two dancers (the ROH website doesn't list who). No.3, Still falls the rain was accompanied by a repetitive video piece which matched footage of bombs raining down on various towns with images of Jesus on the cross. For The Journey of the Magi Bostridge and Davies were joined by the young baritone Benedict Nelson, who fully matched them for beauty and clarity and blend. This was barely staged - the three singers were just wearing coats and had suitcases next to them. The last, The Death of Saint Narcissus, was another simple dance piece - a single dancer with his shadow, with the focus squarely on Bostridge and the wonderful harp playing of Sally Pryce. In the other pieces Julius Drake's pianism was a model of clarity and sensitivity, much like his vocal partners, and Richard Watkins's was equally fine in his contribution on Horn in Canticle III. All in all then, it would be hard to imagine a better musical interpretation than this.
Throughout I did keep thinking to myself that it would have been far more satisfactory to have had the singers acting, as that's where the drama was. Ian Bostridge's restless, pensive stage presence, contrasting with Iestyn Davies's scowling seriousness already made for fascinating viewing, and suggested a far more complex and interesting set of tensions than were being presented by the dancers.
Wholly worthwhile for the breathtaking music making.