Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rightmyer and Smillie Achieve Unity Through Britten’s "Prodigal Son"

Benjamin Britten with Peter Pears. Photo by Victor Parker.

The Prodigal Son

By Benjamin Britten
Libretto by William Plomer after Luke 15:11-32
Director: Thomson Smillie
Conductor: Jim Rightmyer

Reviewed by John Austin Clark

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, John Austin Clark.  All rights reserved.

St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church served as the platform for Kentucky Opera and Louisville Choral Arts Society’s recent production of Benjamin Britten’s church parable The Prodigal Son (1968), the last composed from a cycle of three. Two seasons ago, Kentucky Opera patrons were treated to The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), there again presented by Louisville’s chamber operatic duo Thomson Smillie (stage director) and James Rightmyer (music director).

The tale of the prodigal son consists of a Father (John Arnold) and his two sons facing moral dilemma and consequence. The Elder Son (Greg Jebaily) departs for his day’s work in the fields as the Younger Son (Patrick MacDevitt) is praised for his choice to leave the family for a different life – soon swayed by the voice of The Tempter (Brad Raymond) and lured into Sin City with his entire inheritance. Clad in gold, Younger Son naively embarks on a youthful journey into a lifestyle of Bacchanalian overdrive, including the essential elements of debauchery: booze, sex and gambling. Once the money is up in true prodigal fashion, the game is over and the fun ends. Younger Son must return home in shame to beg for Father’s forgiveness. In very short order, Father rejoices in Younger Son’s return as the household celebrates, all the while Elder Son defiantly questions Father’s acceptance of Younger Son’s wrongdoing. Father quells Elder Son’s jealousy over not receiving equal if not more praise for working the fields all day. It is understood that Younger Son’s return is enough to be hailed and both sons reconcile, restoring the family unit. 

In Britten’s adaptation:

The Tempter provides the narrative structure for the storyline, greeting the audience with a promise that he will break the family. Raymond’s portrayal of The Tempter was spot-on from his early clarion calls to the riling duet shared with MacDevitt as Younger Son sinks into the heat of sin, finally free from the yoke of his family labors. Both Raymond and MacDevitt were a convincing dynamic duo on stage, carrying the parable from beginning to end. MacDevitt’s interpretation of Younger Son as a naïve rolling stone provided a much-needed lightness to the production, while Raymond’s vocal agility fused with confident acting prowess. In fact, the tenor fach led this show in such an impressive way that seemed fitting given Britten’s companionship for tenor Peter Pears.  Also striking were the young treble voice clusters that collectively served as an ironic interior dialogue for Younger Son, a clear and masterful contribution from Rightmyer.

Smillie’s staging was modest, yet fitting in a well-informed miracle play formation: simple and evocative of the storyline yet never excessive. The use of a projector screen and silhouetted characters gave theatrical depth to the production while still maintaining simplicity so that the music and its complexity could shine. Rightmyer led, from a portative organ, an elite group of instrumentalists evocative of a Japanese Noh gamelon collective. Britten was a master colorist, selecting sounds that often painted exquisite aural tableaus. Rightmyer’s group was stunning as part of the theatrical experience, showcasing the instrumentalists as part of the production, team players in the telling of the storyline. Father taught his sons that at the end of the day a unified family was the most important value – a lesson learned in this production’s successful execution.

The Prodigal Son
Thursday, October 4, 8pm
Friday, October 5, 8pm

Kentucky Opera at
St. Francis in the Field Episcopal Church
6710 Wolf Pen Branch Road
Harrods Creek, KY 40027


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