This was the first of three community performances of Noye’s Fludde to be put on by New Zealand Opera this month to celebrate this year’s Britten centenary. Britten wrote this work to be performed predominantly by a cast of amateurs with professional singers filling the roles of Noah, his wife and as the voice of God. A small core ensemble of professional musicians is also needed, with amateur players supporting on strings, recorders and percussion. Following Britten’s explicit instructions, the opera was performed not in a theatre but in a town hall, and all of the instruments and their performers were clearly visible.

Before the performance commenced, the conductor appeared to coach the audience (or “congregation” as Britten termed it) in the three hymns we were expected to participate in during the performance. This is another part of the effort to narrow the gap between performers and audience; another was to set up the raised performing area in the centre of the auditorium with the audience surrounding on every side. The ark was simply yet effectively created with long wooden poles extending out from the platform. God made his pronouncements aloft on a high lifeguard’s chair, besuited and looking something like a banker. Noah appeared in stereotypical New Zealand farmer’s getup, including shorts and gumboots (Wellington boots), and his wife sported a red bathrobe. Both their children and the Gossips sported a wide range of ill-matched, brightly coloured clothing items. In costuming the animals, the producers went for simplicity; white T-shirts and jeans but with a tremendous array of masks and poles sporting birds which I would surmise that the children made themselves. At one point, Noah sends two birds out to search for land – a raven accompanied by cello, followed by a dove accompanied by a recorder (played with flutter-tongue). These were interpreted by children dressed in black and white respectively twirling parasols from atop their parents’ shoulders; the effect was surprisingly beautiful. One great touch was the ending when, in true Kiwi style, God descended at the end to share a beer with Noah and his family.

The work revolves around God’s instructions to Noah to build the ark and the ensuing construction and loading with animals. Noah’s wife mocks the project and refuses to board, but is tied up and carried on by her sons. The animals (played by a children’s choir) then also board, and the whole cast endures a frightening storm before calm is restored. Britten’s music has an overall sombreness that sometimes counteracts the feeling of the stage action. However, he has a miraculous command of orchestral colour and a flair for particular pictorial effects, with an electrifying storm sequence the most notable. Each element was introduced one by one (wind by trilling recorders; string figures representing the waves). I also loved the effect of the teacups played by wooden spoons to indicate rain. Nicholas Forbes offered sterling support on the organ to often overwhelming effect.

It is difficult to review a concert such as this critically, considering that it was largely executed by amateur performers. Especially having so many children involved, there was occasionally an impression of kitsch that somehow managed to be totally endearing. In all honesty, though, the orchestra (largely made up of schoolchildren with a few members of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra visible throughout) played superbly, brass fanfares pealing out with nary a bubble in the “Alleluia” following the storm. The handbell playing leading up to the conclusion was virtuosically well-coordinated. Conductor John Rosser had things well in hand directing the singers in the performing area as well as the “congregation” all around.

My major criticism concerns the audibility of the words. This was impeded by having the performance area set up in the centre of the room, with the greatest difficulty encountered when the performers were facing the other way. Luckily the plot was mostly clear from the action on stage. Surprisingly, the children were actually often better at getting their words across than the seasoned operatic artists. Generally though, things fared well vocally. Richard Green’s bass voice radiated authority in the spoken role of God; the intended mood (if not the words) was always clear. Noah, Robert Tucker, was lighter in tone, which made a nice contrast with Green. His stage presence convinced as a bluff farmer protective of his family. As his wife, Wendy Doyle had a characterful voice and shrewish bearing that worked perfectly in this part. Those in the roles of Noah’s children and their wives project their tones cleanly and were in general a joy to watch. As for the congregation’s performance in the three hymns, we probably could have used some more practice.

New Zealand Opera should be applauded for their series of Noye’s Fludde performances intended for community outreach. Any effort that gets children involved not only in hearing, but also participating in, classical music is valuable and especially so when performed at such a generally high standard as here. Here’s hoping that more such events can be planned for the future.