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Poetic Humanism: Enigma Chamber Opera Triumphs with Britten’s ‘The Prodigal Son’

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“An act of hospitality can only be poetic," J. Derrida once said.

The above quote certainly rings true after viewing the Enigma Chamber Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s 1963 “The Prodigal Son,” staged and directed by Kirsten Cairns, which proved to be one of the great triumphs of the local art scene. Based on the Biblical tale of the same name, the libretto by William Plomer tells the familiar story of a father’s forgiveness and a son’s redemption.

“The Prodigal Son” — performed live on Oct. 21 and 22 at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston — is one of three of Britten’s works intended for church performance. Cairns and the performers took full advantage of the cathedral setting, lending the performance a warmth and sense of hospitality that would likely have been sterilized had it taken place at a typical concert hall.

Paul Marr, who directed the lighting design, took particular care in utilizing the space: The performance was bathed with blue light, giving the work a quality of oneiric placelessness which proved a brilliantly heady counterpoint to the warmth and embodiedness of the performance proper. The color changed subtly and without ceremony throughout the performance, underscoring the atmosphere while never slipping into redundancy or overstaging. The media design, credited to Peter A. Torpey, was similarly effective, providing an impressionistic set of images — rolling fields of wheat in the country scenes, pomegranates during the temptation scenes, a cluster of hands in the city — to complement each scene in a way that was lyrical and nuanced.

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The stage design of the drama, however, was far from its only impressive feature. After a brief introductory speech, Cairns invited the audience to speak amongst ourselves as she headed backstage. The performance then began with a striking maneuver: the choir began offstage, giving the impression of a musical force emerging organically and spontaneously out of the audience. The singers approached the stage and bowed to the instrumentalists, who bowed back before taking their seats. This small gesture seems to contain the entire opera within it: a poetic display of the father’s unconditional kindness which Cairns acknowledges as central to the parable.

The instrumentalists provided a near-impeccable complementary force to a choir at once grounded and otherworldly, led brilliantly by Edward Elwin Jones. Jones, doubling as conductor and keyboardist, brought the best out of Britten’s organ score.

Trumpeter Ryan Noe displayed an impressive stylistic fluidity, equally eloquent in the quasi-Baroque idiom of the countryside music — phrasing that requires the humble incisiveness of a religious cantor — as in the muscularity and edge demanded in the modernism of the city scenes. Hornist Emma Staudacher was a notable strength here too, invoking the power and imagery of a Shostakovich symphony in her playing before returning to the meeker dynamics demanded of her role in the countryside scenes in an impressive display of technical control.

Percussionist Mike Williams was strong from the first note, and string players Emily Rome (viola) and Daniel Gorn (double bass) provided the vitality of a full orchestra when needed as well as an operatic, oratory charm in their solos. Harpist Angelina Savoia’s gestures filled the church with a fragrance well-suited to each scene.

Perhaps the most impressive was Aimee Toner, who danced around the alto flute solo with a balletic virtuosity and ease — not an easy task given Britten’s Herculean demands of breath control — and, with a beautifully breathy tone on the flute, inflected the entire performance with a beguiling primordial quality much appropriate to the diegesis.

The vocal corps was as well without a weak link. From the beginning, the chorus, composed of Thomas Oesterling, Paul Soper, and Daniel Fridley, was a miraculous force of flawless diction and intonation.

Omar Najmi, who approached the role of the Tempter with a near sensuality, expertly juxtaposed the innocence of Matthew DiBattista’s tenor as The Younger Son. DiBattista’s singing possessed a brightness and purity of tone which at times recalled a golden-period Richard Tucker. He proved equally formidable as an actor as he did a singer, performing the tepidness of the country scenes and the arrogance demanded of the Tempter in the city with incredible subtlety.

Aaron Engebreth’s breadth of tone proved at once boldfaced and understated. David McFerrin enveloped his perfect diction in the role of the Elder Son with a tone reminiscent of honey — as flexible and easy as it was warm-colored and penetrating.

The play between the divine perfection of the choral singing and the informality of the staging and costume design, executed by Cairns and Rebecca Shannon Butler respectively, allowed Cairns’s thesis — that each of us hold divinity in our ability to love and forgive — to reverberate throughout the work, imbuing it with contemporary, humanist relevance.

All in all, the performance was a decisive success.

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