Although it is 35 years since Benjamin Britten died, his spirit lives powerfully on at his house in Aldeburgh. To mark his centenary, there have been some major changes, the most important to the casual visitor being the restoration of the composer’s studio, an upstairs room in a converted hayloft next to the main house, which had been used as a store room for the archives.
The result is highly evocative. There is a famous photograph of Britten sitting at his desk and the room has been reassembled using the original items down to the last detail – the small sculpture of standing figures on his desk, the manuscript paper in a floor-standing holder, the uncomfortable-looking, backless wooden chair, even the pair of recorders on the table. Only Britten himself is missing. One half wonders if advances in technology mean we will soon have a hologram of him there, working on one of his later scores – the War Requiem, say, or one of the Church Parables – which were composed in this room.
The Church Parables have been chosen as a highlight of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. They are strange and compelling works, masterpieces surely, of a very inward-looking kind (some people suggest that Britten had been shocked by the huge, international success of the War Requiem and was withdrawing into a more private world). They are also challenging to stage and it was interesting to see the original set design in the handsome new exhibition area at the Red House as a reminder of how simple the first productions supervised by Britten were.
Part Japanese Noh play, part Anglican medieval mystery play, the Parables are a bizarre hybrid that should not work – but does. The premieres in the 1960s took place in Orford Church, close to Aldeburgh, and one of the draws of the festival is the chance to see them performed there again. (Ticket applications for the Parables were so high that extra performances had to be arranged.) What we see now are not recreations of those original productions, but a re-working in a similar style.
Mahogany Opera, directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, has opened out the terms of reference. All three of the Parables are still dominated by severely stylised movements, but Curlew River is Japanese, The Burning Fiery Furnace Balinese (Britten was captivated by the music of Bali), and The Prodigal Son combines Middle Eastern dance with the visual imagery of Rembrandt. In one of the imaginative tie-ups of the centenary year, this production of The Prodigal Son has come to Aldeburgh direct from St Petersburg, where the work was given its first Russian performance in the Hermitage Theatre, close to the Rembrandt picture that inspired Britten in the first place.
The three productions gain strength from their variety, though Wake-Walker’s direction gets increasingly fussy. The original point of the stylised movements was that a single gesture came across as a big event, whereas the constant hand movements here became ever more irritating, especially in The Burning Fiery Furnace, which was placed last. Nevertheless, these performances were well played by members of the Aurora Orchestra, perfectly paced by Roger Vignoles at the chamber organ, and strongly sung. James Gilchrist was outstanding in all three of the Peter Pears tenor roles. Lukas Jakobski was a resonant Abbot, Rodney Earl Clarke a commanding Ferryman, and John McMunn highly sympathetic as the Prodigal Son. Whatever the shortcomings of the productions, this was a good choice for the centenary festival, bringing some of Britten’s finest music back into circulation. Mahogany Opera’s productions travel on from here to London and the Buxton Festival.