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San Francisco Girls Chorus celebrates 35th anniversary with Britten spectacle

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Last night in the sanctuary of Congregation Emanu-El, the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) presented a staged performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 59 setting of the text of the Chester Miracle Play Noye’s Fludde. This was the concert portion of the company’s 35th Anniversary Season Benefit Gala and also served as a belated celebration of the 100th birthday of the composer. The staging was by Ariel Craft, featuring original art, costumes, and set pieces created by members of Creativity Explored. The SFGC members were supplemented by all four levels of the SFGC School, all accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe conducted.

The Chester Miracle Plays were English-language accounts of episodes from the Bible that date back to the early fifteenth century. There was an effort to humanize the Biblical characters, often by introducing comic elements. The result was more spectacle than either religious service or drama. The 1977 production of the Wakefield Cycle at the National Theatre in London also suggested that the performers themselves were members of the city’s trade guilds. Most importantly, the language of the text was plain-spoken English, more accessible to the general population than the elevated language of the Church, whether in English or in Latin.

Britten conceived Opus 59 as a ritual within which the narrative would unfold. It was intended to be performed in a church with the participation of the congregation in singing hymns. The principal characters are Noye, his wife, their three sons, and their wives. There is also a disembodied “Voice of God.” In this production Noye and his wife were sung by bass-baritone Joe Damon Chappel and mezzo Silvie Jensen, respectively. The spoken Voice of God was performed by Carey Perloff, standing in a balcony above the altar and speaking into a microphone. The remaining six roles were taken by SFGC members, each one taken by multiple singers. Similarly, the four gossips with whom Mrs. Noye spends all her time were covered by a small ensemble of SFGC singers.

As spectacles go, this was given a pretty impressive account. The entire sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El is enormous, almost cavernous; and the altar was spacious enough to hold the chamber orchestra and all the SFGC singers. One never sees the ark. Instead, one sees the parade of the entering animals (all chanting “Kyrie eleison”), each represented by a child carrying a cardboard figure. By the time all the animals have assembled, they are arranged in a shape that vaguely suggests the ark, while Noye and his wife look down on them from topside while serving as pilots. The synchronized swaying of the animal figures conveyed the rough seas without inducing sea sickness on audience side.

All aspects of the music were deftly managed by Sainte-Agathe. Most of the SFGC School members sat in the congregation area on both sides of the audience. This added a spatial dimension to the large ensemble portions of the score. Britten’s melodic inventiveness was never anything short of delightful. If there was any weakness in the music, it was a certain lack of emphasis in the score’s two major crescendo moments, the loading of the ark as it gets more crowded with the smallest animals squeezing into the remaining spaces and the building of the storm through a chaconne of increasingly diverse sonorities.

The only real weakness, however, was Perloff, who never managed to catch a suitable delivery for the rhythms of fifteenth-century verse through which God speaks to Noye. Those rhythms were important to Britten, since he used the instrumental parts to reinforce them at climactic moments. Perloff opted for a more prosaic reading, hardly suitable for Divine authority. Chappel’s Noye, on the other hand, sang with a resonant voice that conveyed both his devotion and the strength of character to do God’s will. Jensen, in turn, caught all the proper comic elements of Mrs. Noye, who persists in gossiping (and drinking, but not in this production) with her friends until her sons finally coax her into the ark. (Loading the animals was far easier.) The only thing missing was the amateur orchestra to supplement the chamber orchestra with bugles, hand-bells, recorders, and percussion; but there was still more than enough spectacle to make for a satisfying and enjoyable experience.

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