Blackheath Halls, London SE3
From 23 February 2013 to 24 February 2013
Review by Gill Stoker
This opera, written in 1957, is an early example of community-based music, involving as it does a large number of local children and adults as well as three professional opera singers. The Blackheath Halls production, directed by James Hurley, takes place in Britten's centenary year, with funding from the Britten Pears Foundation and others.
The action takes place in the large ground floor hall of the venue. Notices on the way in 'warn' the audience that this is an 'immersive performance'—fortunately no-one actually gets wet. What it did mean was that we entered the performance space with a sense of uncertainty (no doubt intentional), wandering round a rather dark room full of people and piles of various objects, including wooden crates and pallets, animal masks and a pile of sleeping bags.
It was unclear where we were going to sit (if indeed we would be allowed to sit at all), but gradually chairs were put out in rows all around the large central table, and we gratefully took the weight off our feet. As explained in the programme, the concept was that of a modern-day rescue shelter where people have been living for some time, and the opera is performed every day to keep people's spirits up.
Britten wrote the work specifically so that children could take part in an opera. They certainly had a lot of fun in this production, marching around with animal masks (ingeniously made from recycled everyday objects such as plastic cartons by designer Rachel Szmukler), and helping to build the ark by securing pallets vertically around the four sides of the large table.
The production flows seamlessly, despite all the tricky technical requirements (building a boat is no mean task when set within music constraints), and a wonderful atmosphere is created through the music, ably played by an orchestra consisting of amateurs and professionals, adults and children, playing strings, percussion, recorders, trumpets and handbells, under the direction of Nicholas Jenkins.
The three professional soloists were a great joy to hear—Lawrence Wallington as The Voice of God (I think he had the most fun with the medieval mystery play language, as his part was spoken rather than sung), Matthew Rose as Mr Noye, and Clarissa Meek as Mrs Noye. The couple's great comic moment comes when she refuses to get onto the ark and slaps her husband's face; he picks her up, puts her over his shoulder and carries her on.
The opera was written with the intention that the audience would join in the hymns ("Lord Jesus, think on me", "Eternal Father, strong to save")—I was expecting that to be part of the 'immersive' nature of the production, but there was no encouragement to join in and (what really clinched it) no words provided in the programme. Perhaps it was too much to factor in, or just not part of the director's concept.
It would also have been nice to see a rainbow, perhaps via a lighting effect, especially as lighting designer Ben Pickersgill produced such a magical episode when a dove flitted all around the walls and ceiling.
A community opera takes place at Blackheath Halls every year. This one was additional to that schedule, offering just three performances—a real treat for everyone, both for the large numbers of performers and helpers taking part, and for the audience who were given plenty to look at and listen to throughout.