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A wave of enthusiasm for Britten's `Fludde'

January 29, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

Received opinion has it wrong with regard to Benjamin Britten. Often thought of as a bulwark of so-called musical conservatism in the 20th century, Britten was really quite an innovator, inventing new genres of music theater, trying out new sonorities, reaching beyond the usual performance spaces.

All of this plays right into the hands of Los Angeles Opera, which has been seeking vehicles for outreach and found a marvelous, ready-made one in Britten's "Noye's Fludde" from exactly half a century ago.

So the opera set up camp Saturday night in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, just down the block from the company's august home base, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and invited the community to come -- free. Rather than delegating the conducting to an assistant, music director James Conlon took it on, backing with action his recent words about immersing himself in his new job. And the people came in droves, waiting in line in the rain for first-come, first-served seating.

"Noye's Fludde" -- or "Noah's Flood" -- is a chamber opera, for lack of a better term, with a text taken from a 16th century miracle play. It is an unusually effective merger of artisans and their community, for Britten calls for a cast and orchestra of a few professionals and many amateurs, including children, minimal sets and three hymns for the congregation -- us -- to sing.

The piece is also an important steppingstone in Britten's development: You can hear the influence of the glistening sonorities that he heard on his life-changing trip to Bali in 1956, paving the way for his genre-busting trilogy of church parables in the 1960s.

L.A. Opera and its collaborators from Hamilton High School and St. John Eudes Church of Chatsworth, however, were faced with one immovable obstacle -- the cathedral. In his performance notes, Britten called for "some big building, preferably a church -- but not a theatre," yet this cavernous, heavily reverberant space presented balance problems that amplification couldn't solve and probably made worse. Britten's ingenious details for strings, wailing recorders, bugles, offbeat percussion, piano and pipe organ -- especially in the spine-tingling final procession -- were often lost in the soup. Despite some inventive ideas (the "staffs" carried by some choristers dressed as shepherds were spot microphones), the vocal balances were all over the lot.

Yet amazingly, at times thrillingly, the performance worked. Conlon kept a firm, vital grip on the piece's rhythms, enthusiastically rehearsing us before the performance. Baritone Jason Stearns was a heroic, stoic Noah; mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella displayed admirably precise diction as Noah's batty wife; and Jamieson K. Price intoned the sometimes overwrought voice of God from stage left.

Eli Villanueva's staging faithfully followed Britten's playbook, with the kids piecing together the ark, silk streamers simulating ocean waves and a rainbow, and adorable children with animal headgear racing through the aisles to the ark singing "Kyrie, eleison!" He wasn't, however, responsible for the beautifully timed storm outdoors.

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