New Zealand Festival and New Zealand Opera
Britten: Noye’s Fludde
Robert Tucker, Joanne Hodgson, Bryan Crump, large cast of children and young people, Wellington Youth Sinfonietta, Arohanui Strings, Hutt Recorder Group, Samuel Marsden School Handbells, all conducted by Michael Vinten and directed by Jacqueline Coats
Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua
Saturday, 8 March 2014, 5pm
The production of Britten’s community opera, written in 1957, in a large venue with a huge cast of singers and instrumentalists was a major undertaking, and all acquitted themselves well.
Although it appeared that the majority of the audience consisted of parents and grandparents of cast members, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and the participants had a valuable experience of
taking part in such a show, where everyone must know their part, and co-operate with many others.
This was a performance that improved as it went along; two subsequent performances in a smaller venue in Berhampore next weekend should benefit from this first outing.
Britten based the work on a 15th century mystery play (or was it 16th? The printed programme gives both but Google sources favour the former date) from Chester. All the action taking place on a central stage with several level echoed the original’s performance on a cart, which could be moved from place to place.
Prior to the performance, the audience was rehearsed by Michael Vinten for its part: the singing of three hymns at various points in proceedings. It did this extremely well, I thought.
The action began with the arrival of Noah (Robert Tucker) and the voice of God (Bryan Crump) instructing him to build the Ark. There was some loss of clarity early on from both characters; all solo voices were amplified, and sometimes this obscured rather than enhancing the voices and especially the words. Robert Tucker, as a superb and experienced opera singer, surely did not need amplification, and I fancy he did away with his face microphone at some point. His strong, accurate and characterful baritone voice and his acting were splendid.
Joanne Hodgson, as the doubting wife, acted her part believably; her gossiping friends’ over-acting was obviously deliberate. Their affinity with drinking was manifest in their carrying milkshake containers – apt for a family show.
The parts for the Noah sons and their wives were played by children, and here the projection of voices was more problematic. All had face microphones, meaning that the sound came from the directions of the six loudspeakers situated on three sides of the platform. This meant loss of identification and direction, and a merged sound, instead of each being an individual. Much of the time it was difficult to see which one was singing at any given time, or differentiate the voices. They all had attractive voices and knew their parts, though consonants did not come over well. I have to admit it would have been difficult for such young voices to project sufficiently in such a large space. Britten wrote the work for performance in a
church or a theatre; smaller places much more resonant for the human voice. I am sure he never envisaged such a large venue as the Arena.
Perhaps at Berhampore, in a smaller venue, they can dispense with the amplification.
Coincidentally, that very day I had been reading a piece on the subject written by my colleague Lindis Taylor, some years ago. He pointed out that focus, balance and quality are muddled and distorted, and can be lost by the amplification of the solo human voice.
The Gossips and the Animals were not amplified, and thus their voices sounded direct, natural, and had individual character, while blending well; of course, they had the volume of numbers on their side.
The words were in the main from the mystery play, but the animals when they first came on sang ‘Kyrie’ (Lord have mercy), and when they went off at the end, they repeated ‘Alleluia’. The energy and rapid movement of the animals were delightful, as were the depictions of the raven and the dove. These were danced, with avian props, by Brooke Raitt and Sophie Plimmer. The rainbow took the form of strings of coloured pennants, which were raised at the end, and attached to the mast of the Ark, after sun, moon and stars had been paraded, and placed around the Ark.
The cardboard animal headgears, and in some cases, representations of birds and other creatures on hand-held poles, were enchanting, though not as elaborate as I have seen previously nor as shown in photographs of a performance supervised in 1958 by the composer. Also apt and telling were the lengths of appropriately coloured cloth waved beside the ‘Ark’ to represent the rising waters. Actions of the animals on board likewise represented the movement through water.
The orchestra of children and young people performed the lively score extremely well, especially the percussion, the Samuel Marsden handbells who played at the end, the recorder bird-songs, and the hunting horns located in the upper gallery, away from the audience and other performers. However, this is not to demean the large force of string players, who carried most of the orchestral work most proficiently.
The performance amply demonstrated Britten’s genius in writing such a diverse work for juvenile forces. All in all, it was an enjoyable and engaging production, despite some problems, and plaudits are due all round.
There are two further performances in Berhampore next Saturday, 15 March, at 2.30pm and 5pm, in the Wellington Chinese Sport & Cultural Centre, Mt Albert Road, Berhampore.