The Benjamin Britten centenary has inspired many groups into performing his works. The opera Noye’s Fludde was written to give amateur children a chance to perform and engage in operatic music alongside a smaller group of adult professional soloists. This performance was part of the Cheltenham Music Festival as their nod to Britten in the composer’s special year.

On walking into the vast venue it was clear this wasn’t going to be a small-scale production. There was a giant platform in the middle of Tewkesbury Abbey with an enormous bird’s head attached to the front and painted cardboard leaves all the way round. The orchestras, soloists and the Carducci Quartet were all hidden underneath the stage, with the aforementioned cardboard leaves providing a sound barrier and screen, despite Britten’s original instructions that the instruments should not be hidden from view. The middle of the abbey was used as the performance area, with audience members seated behind and in front, providing some confusion as to which way the singers should project their voices. The programme was kind enough to warn audience members that “though being a feast for the senses, not every word will be entirely audible”.

Glyn Oxley had a large job on his hands as conductor. He not only had to co-ordinate musicians left, right and centre, but also had the challenge of conducting the singers, who were three metres above him, effectively on another floor and hidden behind giant leaves on a rostrum and a safety balcony of metal bars. Under the circumstances, he kept the performance fairly together. There were some inevitable unsynchronised passages, but the storm scene was powerful. The soundscape of the production was brilliantly designed by Britten, creating an effective storm sequence where the rain is represented by “slung mugs” and the thunder by timpani. Oxley also took the responsibility of bringing in the audience for the “congregation” hymns with clear gestures as to when to stand up and sit down. Amongst the professional musicians, the Carducci Quartet, though sadly inaudible, provided the pillar structure for the music. Percussionist Diggory Seacome stood out, not only by being able to make the loudest sound, but also by adding drama to the performance. He wasn’t afraid to hold back and there were some powerful moments where the percussion and organ, played by Carleton Etherington, accompanied Noye’s triumphant solo after the storm goes.

Philip Smith sang the part of Noye and had a strong voice. He had good projection though still not every word could be heard. He is clearly a talented soloist and had the ability to hold the attention of the audience with his deep bass voice. Smith enunciated his words well and had a command over the children, alongside mezzo-soprano Jessica Dandy, who also gave a very well-rounded performance.

Noye’s Fludde was first performed in 1958, in a church in Orford, a place that had flooded five years previously. It was therefore entirely apt that this performance was performed in Tewkesbury, which was seriously flooded in 2007. It tells the well-known tale of Noah’s Ark, in which Noah is told, by the voice of God, to build “a shippe” to save all the animals while it rains for 40 days and nights.

The general design of the performance was confusing, and the staging involved plenty of marching in circles. The animals were played by children, and were represented in a number of different ways, including sheet banners on sticks with illustrations on. When held up high, these completely masked the action on stage. The rather beautiful scene with the dove performs a ballet dance – by Maddie Dunn, to moving music – was completely masked. The “shippe” acting as the main stage actually caused most of the problems throughout the performance. Had it all been on one level, the performance would have been more unified. Still, the design, with illustration by James Mayhew, can certainly be credited for creating an impact. It may not necessarily have worked for this production and in this venue, but it was certainly an original approach and the children’s “Kyrie eleison!” was amazing to watch and created an impactful sound. Donald Maxwell played the spoken role of the voice of God, and his voice was fantastically commanding and powerful. It was questionable, though, as to whether his costume, or lack thereof, was entirely necessary. His nude top half was painted front and back with God’s head, whilst his bottom half, worryingly concealed for the majority of the performance, was clad in concert dress. Whenever he spoke, the lights came up in the Abbey to great effect, as though heaven had opened.

There was certainly never a dull moment in this performance, and the children all certainly enjoyed being on the stage. In terms of Noye’s Fludde being an educational and engaging experience for children, which was always Britten’s aim, the production was spot on.

**111