Benjamin Britten made a habit of writing music-theatre pieces to be done in church, with varying degrees of theatricity, ranging from the oratorio-like St Nicolas to the operatic Burning Fiery Furnace. And they’re all great pieces. Very great, I’d argue, in the case in Noye’s Fludde which, although written for amateurs and children, is a work of towering genius and moral force. I caught a snatch of it on radio the other week, while still in shock over the EU referendum, and its final scene – where God gives Noah the rainbow as a sign of reconciliation, peace and comfort while the congregation sing and bugles blare at a dodgy pitch – reduced me, as it usually does, to tears. If only that were real life.
And if only people were still writing music-theatre to be done in church, you may well say. It’s not on the agenda of composers these days. But there is a company attempting to address the problem. Called Cantata Dramatica, it has previously put on shows at Christ Church, Oxford and elsewhere. And last weekend it was at Ely Cathedral with Cantata Eliensis: a comparatively large-scale piece about St Etheldreda, the 7th-century Saxon abbess/queen whose shrine made the cathedral famous and who remains its patron saint.
Bizarrely, the Cantata was the work of three composers, each responsible for one of three acts. And with no stylistic consensus between them, it was a jolt to travel from Anna Kraus’s spare, hypnotically slow-moving Act I (Etheldreda’s life and death), to Toby Young’s vibrant Act II (where the Normans come,1066 and all that), and finally to Louis Mander’s lyrically busy Act III (the cathedral gets built). But it worked. And Young’s prominent use of soprano sax in his orchestra, floating through the resonance of Ely’s cavernous, fan-vaulted Lady Chapel in the spirit of Jan Garbarek (if you recall Officium) was sonically spectacular.
A newish company, Cantata Dramatica has artistic issues to address, but there’s potential here. Adventurous churches and cathedrals should explore it.
Going back to Britten, there’s been a rather brilliant Turn of the Screw touring Scotland in a production by St Andrews University that has student singers of disarming talent. I caught it in the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, and was captivated by a young soprano, Caroline Taylor, who hasn’t even reached music college yet (she starts next term) but sang the Governess with exactly the right mix of beauty and neurosis. Michael Downes, the University’s music director, conducts effectively. And though the director Tania Holland-Williams generates confusion by having separate tenors for the Prologue and Peter Quint (the former periodically resurfacing within the story), her approach is fascinating – with Quint’s ginger wig the scariest thing on stage.