The Kentucky Opera opened a company premiere last night of Benjamin Britten’s “The Prodigal Son,” an installment of the celebrated 20th century composer’s Parables for Church Play trilogy. It’s part of the company’s contemporary chamber series, staged in St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Harrods Creek and featuring a small chamber orchestra ensemble, members of the Choral Arts Society and the Opera’s studio artists.
“The Prodigal Son” tells the biblical New Testament parable of loss and redemption. A younger son leaves his father and older brother behind on the family farm to go off into the world and sample its pleasures, only to return home in disgrace when he wastes his inheritance. Britten staged the opera as a play within a play, using the conceit of the medieval church mystery play, in which monks act out the story for the benefit of their largely illiterate congregation. Staging the production in a church brings a site specificity to the experience that illuminates the necessity of theater as a storytelling vehicle in early European life.
Seeing an intimate contemporary opera so soon on the heels of the season opener, Puccini’s grand tragedy “Tosca,” provided a delightful study in contrasts. The audience for “The Prodigal Son” was a bit less formally dressed (church clothes rather than opera gowns) for a less formal, though no less solemn, performance space. “Tosca” is a three-act heavyweight, hurtling non-stop toward its tragic end, while “The Prodigal Son” is a brisk 70-minute one-act that many will know ends in reconciliation and redemption.
The musical experience is quite different, and not only because “The Prodigal Son” calls for an odd little mix of instruments in its chamber ensemble (organ, viola, bass, flute, horn, trumpet, harp and percussion), rather than the full orchestra backing “Tosca.” Britten’s compositions are also beautifully volatile, incorporating calls and response over Puccini’s arias. His score reflects Balinese and Japanese influences (the program notes are quite handy) and sounds thoroughly modern, showing how far opera and classical composition came in the 20th century (“Tosca” premiered in 1900, “The Prodigal Son” in 1968). The cast is all male, save one child member of the chorus, so the overall story tone is different without a lead soprano like the riveting Kara Shay Thomson (Floria Tosca) to both anchor and soar.
The cast is young, even if you don’t count the pint-sized chorus members who provide the top-end notes. Kentucky Opera’s studio artists (emerging singers in residence who are learning the repertory and professional ropes before going out on their own) give “The Prodigal Son” a youthful energy, particularly compared to the grounded, full maturity of the experienced “Tosca” cast.
Brad Raymond plays the lead monk who introduces the play and so he takes on the shape of The Tempter, a Satan analog who encourages the daydreaming younger son (Patrick MacDevitt, younger than most as a trainee studio artist) to forsake his father (John Arnold) and older brother (Greg Jebaily) and head off to the big bad city for drinking, gambling and consorting with a bad crowd. Raymond, who played the evil henchman Spoletta in “Tosca,” demonstrates a solid acting talent, able to do much with his eyes and body while singing a demanding role. His presence on stage grows when not competing with the formidable Michael Chioldi (his evil boss, Baron Scarpia, in “Tosca”).
“The Prodigal Son” has one more performance tonight at 8 p.m. at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church. The next Kentucky Opera production to open is Massenet’s ”Cinderella” (Nov. 2-4) in the Brown Theatre.