OPERA / Irresistible temptation: Stephen Johnson on Kent Opera's comeback with a new Prodigal Son at the Bath Festival

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The Independent Culture
There were two triumphant returns at the Bath Festival last Friday. Britten's 'church parable' The Prodigal Son appeared again on stage, after what seems like a long period on the shelf, in what was certainly the most convincing performance I have ever heard or seen. Reborn along with it was Kent Opera, silent since its dissolution in 1989, but showing here that it is very much back with the living and still able to deliver the musical and theatrical goods.

No, The Prodigal Son is not what most opera- goers would consider a full evening's entertainment, and yes, the forces required are small. But there was nothing small about the total achievement - managed without any kind of state support. So who's complaining?

Very well, the achievement wasn't entirely faultless. Tuning between the boys' and men's voices in the opening chanted processional took a short while to stabilise; the stage creaked and groaned as the cast - still singing - marched slowly off at the end; and the final re- robing could have been done a little more stylishly. But none of this really detracted from an otherwise rich, captivating experience.

If there was a star of the evening it was Howard Haskin as the Tempter. With a strong, true tenor voice, capable of great expressive variety, firm throughout its range and about as unlike Peter Pears as you could imagine, Haskin made a majestic, truly demonic Tempter. Britten's depiction of the Prodigal's fall into sin is usually held to be the work's big let-down. That's probably fair, but Haskin and the director Tim Carroll got round it rather well, by focusing on the pathetic aspect of the young man's moral decay, and on the cold triumph of the Tempter.

James Oxley's likeable, vocally mellifluous performance as the Prodigal helped still further. His realisation of his own inner emptiness, before the moving solo 'I will arise and go to my father', was surprisingly convincing. Alan Watt as the Father also made it easier to understand why the Prodigal has to return: a warm, tender performance, dignified but not pompous - a long way from the familiar God- father image. Gwion Thomas as the Elder Son sensibly didn't overplay his jealousy and final reconciliation, and thus left a deeper impression than most. Staging and costumes were on the whole effectively simple, and from time to time really striking - best of all the four Parasites, with their depersonalising helmets and sinister, flail-like attachments to their right wrists. What manner of vice could they be into, one mused uneasily? - 21-22 June 6.30 / 8.30pm Christ Church, Spitalfields, London E1 (071-377 1362)

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