REVIEW: ALDEBURGH FESTIVAL The Church Parables Snape Maltings Concert Hall

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The Independent Culture
Afascinating study day, on Monday, reminded us all of just what remarkable, indeed revolutionary, pieces the Church Parables are - Britten's quiet answer to the infinitely less memorable "revolutions" of the 1960s avant-garde - and prepared us for the epic presentation of all three parables in one evening by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, on Tuesday.

Bringing the Parables home to Suffolk in this particular form was a daring, if fascinating, gesture. In keeping with the current vogue among opera producers for imposing very personal "interpretations" on established works, there was a kind of crescendo of outrage, from a purist's point of view, whereby Toby Wilsher's fairly straightforward version of Curlew River (retaining the framework of processing monks, simple costumes, and masks) was followed by a Burning Fiery Furnace from Sean Walsh, which was even more cavalier in its discarding of any ritualistic approach, with Babylonian courtiers in dinner-jackets and acolytes in prep-school uniforms bringing on stuffed pigs' heads. (The unsavoury grubbings of the Humphrey Carpenter biography loomed in the background in these productions.) The trebles all sang most bravely here, under a withering hail of bread pellets from the drunken Babylonians. Finally, in Mark Tinkler's version of The Prodigal Son, the conventions were thrown completely out of the window: no masks, the procession of monks turned into a school assembly, turn-of-the-century "Suffolk" country costumes, while the Father presided over a tea table wielding an enormous teapot. The homoerotic content was forcibly spelt out, with boy Parasites clearly visible wailing from their tower top, and a very bohemian all-male drinking bout.

Crystallising the "delights of the flesh" into the bodily form of an actual "thin-as-a-board juvenile" proved both disturbing and somehow touching. Interestingly enough, this last production went down best of all with the hard-core Aldeburghers - which seems to show that if you are going to mess about with the extremely specialised and unique conception of music-theatre that Britten created in the Church Parables, then you might as well go the whole hog. The result was both irritating and strangely compelling. The Birmingham singers and players performed magnificently through a long evening, and only an occasional tut of disapproval marred the generally favourable reaction.

Now, though, that the experiment has been tried - the implied made explicit, the understated thoroughly overstated, it must be time, surely, for a revival of the original productions of these pieces, so that a new generation can see what all the fuss was about. On this occasion, the Parables had indeed "come home", but, like the prodigal son, curiously changed.