Benjamin Britten’s church opera Noye’s Fludde might seem a strange opener for a major classical music festival, but at Stockholm’s Baltic Sea Festival, it made all kinds of sense. At a festival devoted to showcasing orchestras and ensembles from around the Baltic Sea region as well as shining a light to the challenges of climate change and pollution, Noye’s Fludde became both a celebration of community and a hopeful call to action.

<i>Noye's Fludde</i> © Arne Hyckenberg
Noye's Fludde
© Arne Hyckenberg

The Baltic Sea Festival was first held in 2003. It was conceived as both a means of strengthening the relations between the countries lying on the Baltic Sea – several of them had just recently come out from behind the Iron Curtain – and to shine a light to the environmental challenges faced by the sea. The environmental scope is still very much present, and this year’s festival also looks more broadly at the ever-more rapidly changing global climate. This environmental awareness was particularly noticeable on the first day of the festival. Although Noye’s Fludde on the surface tells the story of Noah’s Ark, it was difficult to see the titular flood as anything other than an allusion to the current state of the planet. With recent news of a burning Amazon Rainforest and melting glaciers on Greenland, Noye’s Fludde seemed eerily prescient.

Even though Noye’s Fludde marked the official opening, the first performance of the festival had taken place a couple hours before. At the avant-garde theatre Orionteatern, the Danish performance collective Hotel Pro Forma put on the ‘climate performance opera’ Neo-Arctic. It consisted of 12 scenes or songs performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, set to an ambient house soundtrack designed Jesper Kongshaug. The songs presented a dystopic picture of the world and offered little in terms of respite from our worsening climate. While it was lacking musically – the music was overly repetitive – the performance art aspects managed to starkly underline the magnitude and gravity of the challenges posed by climate change.

<i>Noye's Fludde</i> © Arne Hyckenberg
Noye's Fludde
© Arne Hyckenberg

While still digesting Neo-Arctic, I sat down in Berwaldhallen for Noye’s Fludde. While Britten presumably did not intend the piece as a parable of Man’s destruction of the environment, it was hard not to read this performance as such. The reason God unleashes the storm is because sin has run rampant in human society. While the Biblical notion of sin might be somewhat unfashionable these days, in this production – directed by Dan Turdén – it was clear that the sin for which all of creation was being punished was that of inaction in the face of natural catastrophes.

The opening scene sees God – a commanding Tomas Bolme – command Noye to construct the Ark. It was set in a run-down living room, an old television flickering in front of Noye and his wife – fabulously sung by Johan Schinkler and Ulrika Tenstam, respectively – both wearing their pyjamas. While Noye immediately sprang into action, it became clear that Mrs Noye’s reluctance to join her husband and their children on the Ark came from a place of domestic complacency. It was made even more clear when Mrs Noye was joined by her gossips, all face masks, wine cartons and flowing silk dressing gowns. They were simply having too pleasant of a time to worry about the impending apocalypse.

Luckily, Noye’s Fludde is not all doom and gloom. It is ultimately a hopeful piece, offering humanity at least the possibility of starting over. It is a piece that celebrates community, bringing together professionals and amateurs, children and adults. The orchestra – sounding fantastic under the direction of Andreas Hanson – was assembled from musicians from the Swedish Radio Orchestra and two Stockholm youth orchestras, and the singing parts were taken on by professionals and young students. Even the roles of performer and audience were constantly blurred and swapped as the audience took on the role of congregation, singing hymns to and alongside the performers. Everyone present were actively involved with the creation of the opera itself.

<i>Noye's Fludde</i> © Arne Hyckenberg
Noye's Fludde
© Arne Hyckenberg

The opera also has its fair share of endearing moments. By far the cutest part of the whole performance – and of the piece itself – was the pairs of animals entering the Ark. Children from local church choirs, wearing cardboard boxes featuring pictures of their respective animals on their heads, gleefully ran, jumped and pushed each other across the stage to form an orderly queue at the back, all the while chanting “Kyrie eleison”. It was all unbearably charming.

The idea of Noye’s Fludde as a climate change analogy does have its limits. Unlike in the Biblical story, the water will not simply recede after a few days, revealing the earth made anew. We don’t have the option to wipe the slate clean, but at least the opera can give us something resembling hope. It presents the possibility of a different future than the one we are headed towards, and after such a joyful performance, I can’t have been the only one feeling acutely hopeful.


Aksel's press trip to Stockholm was funded by Swedish Radio

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