OPERA Britten's Church Parables Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
BCMG has scored a first, in a bold collaboration with City of Birmingham Touring Opera, by staging all three of Britten's 1960s Church Parables - a triptych that forms the bridge (more audibly than I'd realised) between the composer's early chamber operas and his final stage masterpiece, Death in Venice. The juxtaposition makes for a stirring and moving evening. The staging is not without the odd drawback and irritation, but in essence it is well-conceived, and gorgeously sung by a largely young, fresh-voiced cast.

The evening owes everything to Britten's subtly instrumented, orientally inspired ensemble. You almost forget them, so beautifully do BCMG's players, at side or centre stage, mesh with the action. Colin Lilley's flute, Eugen Popescu's solo viola underscoring the Tempter, the searing double-stopped double-bass playing (shades of the Dream) of John Tattersdill in Curlew River - these were unforgettably perceptive, sensitive readings. Nothing, even the snarls of trombone and horn, was overblown. Simon Halsey marshalled it all from a portative keyboard.

The pieces were taken out of order, with The Burning Fiery Furnace, unpredictably the evening's weak link, placed last. The first, Curlew River, which Halsey, in true chamber fashion, allowed to run itself, had the most powerful impact. The drama (precisely charted by Trestle Theatre's co-director, Toby Wilsher) was simply conceived, like Britten's original, with chanting monks as shambling amateur players, trestle tables and boxes as ingenuous props, and a tatty sheet-bestrewn "mountain". Neill Archer's ancient Madwoman seemed visually as shambolic as Pears's original was reputed to be; but, as then, "her" final tragic revelation was gutting.

Vocal revelation of the evening was Quentin Hayes (the gobbing Eddie/Oedipus of Turnage's Greek): his sympathetic, mildly-masked presence did much to render Curlew River seamless. He can act, too, as could Jeremy Huw Williams's meticulously gestured ferryman. Wilsher's back-to-back blocking of the pair at one point was magical. Williams's Abbot, who frames the final fiery parable, was superbly projected; yet his hand-wringing, laughably caped Astrologer was one good reason why Sean Walsh's addled Furnace, a Berkoff Salome-clone complete with tuxedoed tyrant, went loopy. But I liked the Merodak (or Marduk) puppet, and the incantation scene was eerie.

With The Prodigal Son, Mark Tinkler gives us what you might call the "Humphrey Carpenter" version. The scene of "delights" included a blatant, tabloid-tantalising hint that the Tempter - Ivan Sharpe, a fine young Guildhall-trained tenor with Aschenbach potential - is procuring a 12- year-old boy, while, from their similar attire, one senses that this sylph is but a mirror-image of the prodigal himself (Andrew Burden) as a boy: his own true alter ego. The presence of the tender - not so much Jewish as Amish - father (Charles Johnstone) heightens the effect. A Britten dilemma is pointed up, its Jungian resonances never overlarded.

Matthew Lloyd played the boy; Darren Chadwick, the Angel-Knabe in the Fiery Furnace, where a related idea gets feebly and gratuitously flaunted; and the beautiful passage in Curlew River where Britten makes the dead son's voice rise over male chorus textures was searingly sung by Sam Woods.

28 March, QEH, SBC, London (0171-960 4242); 17/24 June, Aldeburgh Festival (01728 453543)