The Power of Stories

ItalyItaly Britten, The Prodigal SonMembers of the Chorus and Instrumentalists of the Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome.  Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani.  Conductor, James Conlon. Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome.  04.07.2014 (JB)

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma - The Prodigal Son, musica di Benjamin Britten - Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara CoeliParabola da Chiesa Photo Rome Opera (c) Luciano Romano
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma – The Prodigal Son, musica di Benjamin Britten – Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara CoeliParabola da Chiesa Photo Rome Opera  Luciano Romano


The Father                       James Creswell
The Abbot / Tempter  Matthew O’Neill
The Younger Son                Ladislav Elgr
The Elder Son                      Liam Bonner

Just nine days before the Rome Opera’s presentation of The Prodigal Son  in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and only a few feet lower down the Capitoline Hill, that most inspired and inspiring of English writers –Jeanette Winterson- had given a memorable lecture in Piazza Campidoglio on The Power of Stories and Storytelling.  She brought with her videos of scenes from the Mozart –da Ponte operas, which neatly illustrated her major point of how stories may be familiar, but in the right telling  they gain pertinence and force for the hearers of the tales.  A pity that no one had told her about the upcoming Prodigal Son.  It’s an ideal candidate for her thesis.  Think of  Hollywood alone.  How many movies have you seen handling anew those twin  themes of forgiveness and reconciliation?

The first thing to grasp about the original Prodigal Son is that it is a parable and not an allegory.  The difference is simple but important: in an allegory it is the persons and things (the nouns) which stand in for (usually) more abstract conceptions as the main thrust of the story.  In the parable it is the actions (verbs) which are the moving force of the narrative.  You will get into a mighty muddle if you confuse allegory with parable.  Whether it was originally thought up by Jesus is irrelevant .  Some modern scholars tend to think that it already existed and was adopted as a teaching point.  Either way, Winterson’s  advice about its power is indisputable.

Britten’s power cuts three ways with all three operative at the same stroke: the excellent libretto of that fine poet, William Plomer, Britten’s own sense of theatre through voices and instrumentation and not least, the casting of the Christian parable in the sparse and at the same time, elaborate tradition of the Japanese Noh play.  Wilfred Mellers’s appropriate pun in his New Statesman review of the first Church Parable comes to mind, where he called it Britten’s Yea-Play.

In all three church parables Britten’s instrumentation (only eight players in the orchestra, all of them soloists) makes us feel strongly everything which happens between the printed notes.  The slight echo of the Aracoeli helps this enormously.  It’s sparse, it’s specific, yet it seems to invite its own questioning as part of a mystic communication between instrumentalists and audience –a kind of now-you-hear-me, now-you-don’t.  James Conlon’s baton weaves all the right sounds from the players.  A special word of praise for Ignacio Martin Ceballos’s handling of the tuned Balinese drums and harpist, Agnese Coco’s harmonics.  Each brought ethereal effects into a sharp focus.

As in Curlew River, stage director, Mario Martone, made noble and uplifting use of the Aracoeli’s space, though he turned the show right about from the space he used last year.  The Aracoeli felt much bigger than it is, with the high altar used as the family home.  See photo. A curtained-off section in front of the main door rises in sections to reveal tablatures during the prodigal son’s sowing his wild oats.

As that son, Ladislav Elgr was most impressive.  He is long-limbed,  agile of movement and terrifying when writhing on the floor.  His voice is perfectly placed and rings out with a generosity which knows no travail.  A great singer-actor with perfect English diction.

Even more vocally secure was James Creswell as the Father, a round, firm, ringing tone with every vowel and consonant impeccably placed.  Most moving.

Matthew O’Neill had all the right, demanding vocal colours in the dual role of the Abbot and the Tempter.  O’Neil well knows how to put his voice in the service of acting.

Roberto Gabbiani had done his usual excellent job in preparing the small chorus who like the instrumentalists, Britten requires to understand and communicate, not just the plainchant line but what happens musically between these notes.  These sounds of the chorus were the chief focus of memorable enjoyment that I heard in audience comments as I left the church.

Jack Buckley

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