Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde is not frequently heard in live performance, probably owing to the myriad logistical challenges it poses. It was a treat, therefore, to experience it on Friday evening at Trinity Church, Copley Square. It is not unlike a Christmas pageant, but instead of the nativity story, it deals with the Genesis tale of Noah (Noye), his ark, and the great flood. Drawing on the performances of amateurs and professionals, children and adults, Britten intended his setting of the 15th century Chester Miracle Play to be performed in a church, “not a theatre . . . [and] not on a stage removed from the congregation.” Indeed, the congregation—not merely audience—is crucially involved in the performance, singing hymns at three dramatic junctures. Trinity Church, of course, is a large and opulent setting that offers both difficulties and rewards: the former were largely overcome and the latter fully exploited.
Vocalists taking part were the children, youth, and adults of the Trinity Choristers, Schola, Church School, and Trinity Choir, joined by the Boston City Singers, Boston Children’s Chorus, and Cambridge Children’s Chorus. The two professional singers were baritone David McFerrin and mezzo soprano Katherine Growdon, portraying Noye and Mrs. Noye respectively. The (spoken) Voice of God was supplied by four of Trinity’s clergy sequentially: The Rev. Rainey Dankel, The Rev. William Rich, The Rev. Rita Powell, and The Rev. Patrick Ward. Britten also requires instrumental forces so varied as to appear refractory on paper. Added to the usual complement of strings are a string quartet, a group of treble and descant recorders, bugle, piano four-hands, organ, handbell ensemble, and a variety of percussion instruments including quasi-tuned mugs slung out horizontally (there is a delightful photograph of the composer instructing two schoolboys how to play these). Conducting from the grand pulpit—the late Rev. Peter Gomes once described it as “this pulpit that sleeps eight”—Trinity’s Music Director and Organist Richard Webster admirably pulled these massive forces together, while the dramatic direction was the fine work of Kirsten Z. Cairns.
At the outset, after a series of powerful percussion crescendos, all performers and congregation sang the intensely penitential hymn, “Lord Jesus, Think on Me,” which begs for purification and protection, with appropriately thorny harmonies in the accompaniment. During this, Noye appeared on bended knee. Perhaps because he thinks of this hymn as emblematic of the entire work, Britten uses it as the basis for much of the melodic material to come. The Voice of God then came from the rear gallery, instructing Noye; aptly, those of us who attempted to see God were blinded by a spotlight mounted on the gallery. Following Noye’s obedient response to God, we were introduced to his sons Sem, Ham, and Jaffett, and their wives, showing us the pure tone and rhythmic skills of the young soloists (Caleo Aguirre, IK Agba, Harry Brewster, Dorsey Glew, Grace Skehan, and Tory Gilligan, respectively), enjoying their brisk, syncopated material as they followed Noye’s lead. The single significant deficiency of the performance was the rather frequent incomprehensibility of the text; in learning the challenges of Trinity Church’s acoustics, the young singers might have done well to follow again the lead of David McFerrin whose enunciation was consistently clear. At any rate, the actions of these characters as they hewed trees and constructed the ark made the narrative clear enough.
The dramatic conflict as well as comic relief arrived quickly as Mrs. Noye appeared with her Gossips—drinking companions, to be honest. Whereas the earnest Noye and his family were attired as modest Old Testament folk, these women came on as the epitome of 20th-century fashion—of different decades, which only added to the comedy. Katherine Growdon stole the show, her very first words dripping with sarcasm, to the effect that she and her friends must bring timber too though women are weak in the face of any travail. Though Noye pleads repeatedly with her to obey him, she makes it abundantly clear that she will have nothing to do with the ark.
The evening’s first coup de théâtre was the succession of animal processions—dozens of youngsters and a few adults singing Kyrie eleison—from the rear of the church into the completed “ark” in the chancel. With six separate processions (over 40 animals named), the numerous opportunities for these to “go off the rails” hardly bear thinking about, but they were skillfully accomplished, orderly, efficiently but also gleefully—a peculiar emotion to attach to “Lord, have mercy,” but perhaps the point is that animals don’t think the way humans do (or children don’t think the way adults do?). These playful processions were highly enjoyable for performers and audience alike. Comedy continued to be present as Mrs. Noye and her Gossips looked on, miming comments, with a mixture of amusement and scorn.
As the storm gradually begins to build up (the “slung mugs” are struck to represent rain and hail), the dramatic conflict with Mrs. Noye continues. After the three sons surround her and carry her bodily onto the ark, Noye welcomes his wife—and gets soundly slapped for his pains. This marks the end of the comedy, though, as the storm becomes immense. Britten creates a passacaglia here—a bass phrase repeated at length while upper voices are varied above it—the perfect device gradually to build up enormous power and drama. This was the orchestra’s moment to shine, and they certainly did. Percussion combined with lighting to evoke thunder and lightning, the recorders created the whistling wind, string arpeggios represented waves, and triads rising by semitones illustrated the increasing fear of all the passengers on the ark. At the height of the tempest, the next coup de théâtre: the cast sings verse 1 of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (aka The Navy Hymn), and the congregation joins for verses 2 and 3, with the organ playing several wonderfully jagged harmonizations of the tune.
At the conclusion of the hymn, the storm soon subsided to the lovely, gentle playing of the string quartet. The gallery spotlight shone up the center aisle, presumably representing both God and the emergence of the sun. Noye sends out both a raven and a dove to determine whether it is safe to release the ark’s passengers; Ellen Redman’s flutter tonguing on the solo recorder vividly evoked a dove’s cooing. The animals do come out to jubilant Alleluias; here the trumpets and the organ’s trompette en chamade horizontal pipes, at opposite ends the sanctuary, coordinated excellently in fanfares. Then came possibly the most magical moment of the evening as God explained that a rainbow will be his covenant and assurance of no further floods; simultaneously, the large floral rainbow on the altar was unveiled, to the exquisite sounds of the handbell ensemble. Congregation and cast capped the performance by singing “The Spacious Firmament on High” to the beautiful tune of the Tallis canon, and the evening ended movingly with one final tender address by God to Noye.
As a demonstration of the quality of Trinity’s reconstituted children and youth choirs under Richard Webster and Associate Music Director Colin Lynch, Noye’s Fludde was certainly effective, but it also displayed the excellence of Boston’s freelance instrumentalists; reached out to other talented children’s choirs in the metropolitan area; and showed, as Britten intended, how effectively less experienced and more experienced musicians can work together to a beautiful result. What might have been a logistical nightmare ended in a triumph. Bravo to all involved, and to the subsequent cast which I did not hear!