Review: Britten, Church Parables, Orford Church, June 20 & 21

Britten’s three Church Parables all received their premieres in Orford Church so it was entirely fitting that the performances in this year’s centenary festival were in the same setting. Such was the demand for tickets that these performances were in addition to those originally scheduled.

Curlew River was inspired by a Japanese Noh play, Sumigadawa, that Britten saw on a visit to Asia in 1956 and which made a profound impression. Back in England he worked with librettist William Plomer and, while retaining the original story, moved the setting from ancient Japan to mediaeval England with the music based on a plainsong hymn. The overall atmosphere is fluid, the music clearly reminiscent of the Orient and the scoring is light and imaginative, each character associated with certain motifs and instruments. Director Frederic Wake-Walker had created a performance that was seamless and quite riveting. James Gilchrist was mesmeric as the madwoman, even if his garment made him occasionally resemble an injured butterfly. Lukas Jakobski was in superb voice as the Abbott, full of resonance and authority. Samuel Evans and Rodney Earl Clarke sang their roles with character and accuracy, although the latter’s diction was less clear than it might have been as he retold his story to his unsuspecting passengers. Additional performers from Mahogany and Jubilee Opera and The Aurora Orchestra sang and played with dignity and refinement with Roger Vignoles directing from the chamber organ. Designs from Kitty Callister and the subtle lighting of Ben Payne all contributed to a late evening of rare and refined delight, particularly as the spirit of the dead boy appeared.

The other two parables were given on the following evening with the same performing and direction personnel.

The Prodigal Son, the last of the three, was inspired by a Rembrandt painting in the Hermitage Museum. James Gilchrist had, musically speaking, the liveliest character as The Tempter and he and John McMunn as the Younger Son made the most of their duet as they set off, gourd-accompanied, for the City of Sin. The chorus sang with bite and precision and there was some clever and effective choreography representing the vices of the City. Rodney Earl Clarke made clear his displeasure at his father’s warm welcome towards the errant younger son but Lukas Jakobski’s performance was full of nobility in demonstrating universal, unconditional love. Once again the instrumental playing was outstanding, with an exceptional contribution from the viola. After the lively celebration dance following the Son’s return home the ending was quiet, simple and satisfying.

The Burning Fiery Furnace is drawn from the Old Testament and its theme is steadfastness in the face of tyranny. Britten was particularly inspired to tackle the story of Nebuchadnezzar after seeing the stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral that illustrate the story. Although it is a more colourful work than Curlew River it retains some central ideas from the earlier work, notably a catharsis based on faith, in this case the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar, given a particularly strong and characterful portrayal by James Gilchrist. The pagan march in which the instrumentalists processed round the church playing various instruments was wonderfully enjoyable and superb trombone playing added an exotic flavour. The design and direction a created a wholly convincing furnace and the raising of the image of Merodak, along with its dismantling at Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion was crisply effective.

To hear these three fascinating and inventive works in close proximity was a consistently absorbing and often sublime experience.

Gareth Jones