Three parables worth the wait

Benjamin Britten's three church parables, Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) are only just receiving their first UK performances as a complete trilogy in a joint production by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Leading an education day, arranged by Birmingham Symphony Hall for music and performing arts students aged 16 and over, George Caird, principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, said he was "prepared to stick my neck out and assert that Britten is the greatest British composer we have ever had, with an extraordinary ear for sound and a real understanding of how the voice works - qualities which are clearly present in the music of the parables".

Caird sketched in the "defining influence" on Britten of his 195657 tour to the Far East, particularly Bali and Japan, which confirmed his move to chamber opera after the full-scale Peter Grimes.

The economy of musical resources - a tiny ensemble on stage, and the pared-down quality of the production style which Britten uses in all three parables, were direct results of the impact of the Japanese Noh plays and the percussion orchestra of Bali, the Gamelan.

But influences from his own culture are also strong, notably the medieval mystery plays with their vigorous story-telling, his love of English folk music and the plain-song of the European monastic tradition. The "chorus" of monks, who present the stories, runs as a linking theme through the three parables.

In the CBTO production, the order of performance has been rearranged for dramatic progression. The trilogy opens with the austere beauty of Curlew River, directed by Toby Wilsher, using half-masks derived from the Commedia tradition which focus on the inward, emotional journey expressed in the music, as a desperate woman seeks her lost son.

The spare intensity of the music, lit by occasional, poignantly lyrical phrases, is followed by the sombre, earthy tones of The Prodigal Son. Choreographer, Sean Walsh uses mime and slow, stylised movements to complement the music in which Britten sets up a dramatic conflict, urged on by the shiveringly haunting voice of the Tempter (tenor, Ivan Sharpe), between bourgeois and bohemian values.

The trilogy ends with Mark Tinkler's dramatic staging of The Burning Fiery Furnace, where a brazen quality in the music illustrates Nebuchadnezzar's nervy, megalomania and is contrasted with the severe piety of the three, Jewish visitors.

Leaving Symphony Hall one could only wonder why it has taken so long to stage these three moving works in their complete form.

Further performances: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (0171 960 4242) today and Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (01728 453543) June 17 and 24. Details of student party rates and education packages from the individual venues

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