“An epic feat of outreach” are the words used by Lily Einhorn who produced this marvellous version of Noye’s Fludde as a joint enterprise for English National Opera and the Theatre Royal, Stratford East – and those words are absolutely true. Conceived by Britten to be performed by a mixed cast of professionals and amateurs – and to be performed in a hall or church rather than a conventional theatre – this children’s opera is a testament to the width of Britten’s ambitions to give the experience of making music to the widest possible range of children and adults. And the professionals in this cast – and the 200 children from across East London – do a wonderful job of bringing the Britten’s vision to life. The musical values are not compromised here but it is the joyful contribution of the children and young people on stage that makes this a very special evening.
The story of Noah, his family, the animals and the ark is based on the version from the Chester Mystery Plays. It is a very non-sacred telling of the story of God’s anger and the flood. God tells Noah to prepare for a deluge which will cleanse the earth of sinners. Noah quickly gains the support of his sons but Mrs Noah takes a little longer to get the message. They build a boat, and the animals arrive and pack in aboard the vessel which survives the storm. As they emerge after the waters recede, God promises that she will never again visit watery destruction on her people.
Noah and his wife are sung by professional singers. Marcus Farnsworth has a rich baritone voice and he portrays with pathos Noah’s perplexity at God’s decision to destroy her people. But as he warms to his task, and his sons and their wives join the work of boat building, he manages to combine some fine singing with a strong sense that he is there to help and support the young singers who portray his family. Louise Callinan as Mrs Noah is a reluctant recruit to the task but, once she is convinced, her velvety mezzo voice provides the vocal support for Noah’s mission. The wonderful Suzanne Bertish (remembered by some of us as Fanny Squeers in the ground-breaking RSC Nicholas Nickleby) is God and speaks the role with suitable gravitas. No call in the Mystery Play to question whether God’s punishment fits the crime though, so Bertish rightly makes God a gentle, rather than vengeful, deity.
But the heart of this opera is provided by the children and the local youngsters who portray the birds and animals who come two-by-two to enter the ark – and who sing the kyrie and alleluia that mark the entering and leaving of the ark – are inspirational. The two young dancers who portray the raven and the dove are outstanding. There are also young local musicians in the expanded orchestra which sits in the cardboard clouds above the stage and their contribution was splendid. Martin Fitzpatrick conducted the massed ranks with gentle but firm control – the programme does not make it clear exactly who was involved in the preparation of the children for the singing and movement but the team that did this work deserve high praise. And the time taken to prepare the audience for the communal hymn singing helped to set the scene and to make us feel part of the event. This a triumph for ENO and for Stratford East – I hope that the children will remember the part they played with pride.
- Music: Benjamin Britten
- Conductor: Martin Fitzpatrick
- Director: Lyndsey Turner
- Performers include: Suzanne Bertish, Louise Callinan, Marcus Farnsworth
- Venue: Theatre Royal, Stratford East
- Running time: 65 minutes
- Until July 13