Saturday, May 14, 2016


A very strong church opera


The first thing we must take into account is that this church opera is a small production with few actors and few musicians for a small space and little movement, a church, ancient if possible. A Romanesque church would be great but in England it probably is some Norman or later Tudor church, some crossing style between Romanesque and Gothic that is original to England if we disregard the great cathedrals and abbey churches.

This enables Britten to play on disguises. The Abbot is going to be the Tempter. That’s both natural and vicious, if not twisted, but that does not look like it, we do not see it, because that’s some kind of convention we accept since we are in a church and a story has to be told. The Abbot is the natural story teller and the Tempter is the one who is telling jibes not to us this time but to the Younger Son. The Monks can in the same way become the Servants and the Parasites. They are just useful ancillary second grade characters or voices that only fill up the background when necessary. That’s very conventional but very effective. We thus can concentrate our attention on the only three characters that count, the Father, the Elder Son, the Younger Son, plus of course the Abbot/Tempter who is going to tell lies to make the Younger Son fall and who will later at the end tell us the meaning of the tale.

The story is known practically by heart by us all. The Younger Son asks for his share to go into the world where he will be tempted three times by wine, by women and by gamblers, to be abandoned then to his fate and curse to beg or steal if he does not want to die of hunger. He realizes then that he has been lured by the Tempter who was the stranger in the story at the beginning though he pretended he was no stranger since he was the Younger Son’s inner voice. So this Younger Son comes back to his father and begs to be given a job as a field servant. The father refuses, dresses him up, gives him a ring, has the fat calf slaughtered to have a feast and he convinces the Elder Son that forgiveness is the only thing to do.

Britten gives some dynamism to the story by using the wind instruments in contrast to or in union with the few strings. The percussions are used as very simple punctuating rhythmic accompaniment. The dynamism thus comes from the simple architecture of winds versus strings like the two walls of the church rising into and supporting the vault with the percussions amplifying the elevation our souls are supposed to perform in this church nave. Elevation towards truth and forgiveness. These percussions become silent in some crucial turning points of the story like track 15 when the Younger Son begs his Father for a position as a servant.

But this dual architecture becomes fascinating at the end of track 16 when Younger Son and Father convince Elder Son to forgive with two pairs of words, “dead” and “alive again” on one hand, and “lost” and “found” on the other hand. The music and singing are entirely built on echoes as if the two pairs were reverberating in the church from one wall to the other, the servants amplifying the effect by giving it some depth or weight.

That leads us to the fundamental element of this church opera, the deepest Romanesque nature of the tale. The Abbot at the end becomes the voice of divine truth, of Christian morality, the voice that gives meaning to the simple story, that elevates us over the anecdotes of the story. This is an essential dimension of Christian teaching: the truth is always in God, but the Christians cannot get to that truth or to that God without an intercessor, a go-between. Jesus is the regular go-between when we want to speak to God, but in simple Christian life the priest is giving the meaning of everything. He is the voice that sets us, straying lambs or sheep, right on the truthful path. We then can go back out into the world with that resounding moral or idea that is going to lead us on the way. The Abbot here is the preacher who is telling us the meaning at the head of the Danse Macabre speaking to both the people in the Danse and the congregation looking at the Danse. Without that oral explanation, that truthful discourse, there is no meaning in what is represented or told.

In fact we could even go one little step further and say that all religions need that voice to be able to  create awe and obedience among the congregation of the faithful, even if in the present case this congregation is an audience and these faithful are spectators. Then the whole play is about who is the stranger in the story and who is the stranger in the performance. The Tempter should be the stranger but he is not since he is the inner voice of the sinner who is turned into a stranger by abandoning his family and going into the strange world where he is nothing except some stranger who has to be robbed of his wealth to be rejected then as an unknown and unimportant non-entity, the essence itself of a stranger, though he will find some redemption in his homecoming and his father’s and then Elder Brother’s forgiveness which gives him back some identity. Then the strangers are the audience of course who are out of the story and yet the Abbot brings us back into the story, or at least into the meaning of the story and we are no strangers any more. Amen.


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