Night Dances

Britten's music and Plath's poetry meet in the same dark labyrinth

Night Dances

Sylvia Plath and Benjamin Britten are not obvious bedfellows: one a successful British composer and impresario driven by suppressed desire; the other a troubled American poet and feminist icon. One can imagine Britten thinking her dangerously neurotic, even while admiring her poetry. Yet, the two were contemporaries, and, as ‘Night Dances’ at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre revealed, inhabitants of the same dark labyrinth. 

It was a stroke of genius on cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s part to combine Britten’s Second and Third Cello Suites with Plath’s poetry. Surely, it is in these wintry works we find the most obscure recesses of his musical psyche. Here, unclothed, severe, is a profoundly private utterance, a deep song of whispered mourning, hypnotic themes coiling in on themselves, Plath’s ultimate ‘dark ceiling without a star’.

Charlotte Rampling is a mesmerising performer. Clad in black, her slight, feline form slunk almost imperceptibly in and out of character and mood, while the smoky timbre of her voice found its place in the cello’s resonance. She opened with the high-octane grand-standing Lady Lazarus (‘Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.’) Its alarming bombast is brilliantly caught in Britten’s commanding Declamato (Suite No. 2), with its shining, shouted statement and shadowy, doubtful response. From Night Dances the lines ‘And how will your night dances/Lose themselves. In mathematics?’ could have been written for the complicated Fuga that followed, its wide leaping intervals, in glassy harmonics, luminous in the darkness like ‘these planets,/Falling like blessings’. 

The tortuous Second Suite is always a hard listen, and one could sense the strain in what was probably more of a Globe Theatre than a concert audience. Wieder-Atherton held her nerve – and her line – impressively through its multiple technical challenges, if not always demonstrating the big-scale virtuosity and tonal lustre it demands. 

There were moments of startling dramatic choreography, like when Wieder-Atherton struck out her bow towards Rampling, apparently igniting a poem, or intoned an obsessive plucked A string as she began Daddy. In Rampling’s hands this poem, in which Plath aligns her dead German father with the Nazi regime, was a devastating tour de force, and Wieder-Atherton captured its febrile energy in the gruelling Ciaccona.

Britten’s Third Suite, a very personal memorial to his friendship with Mstislav Rostropovich, is a more lyrical work, but the Bachian major arpeggios in its Barcarola have never sounded so warmly consoling as when evoking the gleaming honey jars, and bees who ‘taste the spring’ in Wintering. Its furious, tearing Presto was matched with Ted Hughes’s memory of the panic Spain induced in the young Plath, You hated Spain.

Her cry from Three Women ‘It is a terrible thing/To be so open: it is as if my heart/Put on a face and walked into the world’ took on a very particular meaning: there was a sense that these two slight, vulnerable-looking women, seen in the quivering candle-light, were involved in a confessional act. Rampling stumbled over lines, Atherton’s performance felt almost as if she were playing to herself. Hughes wrote of Plath, ‘Nobody wanted your strange glitter, Your floundering/Drowning life…’ How curious that Britten’s music, reaching out across time, could catch her so tenderly in its ghostly embrace. 


Photo: Marthe Lemelle




A guide to Benjamin Britten

BBC Proms 2014: Britten's War Requiem (Nelsons)


  • Article Type: | Blog |
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here