Lichfield Cathedral was packed for two stunning performances of Benjamin Britten’s community opera, Noye’s Fludde.
The show was presented by the MusicShare organisation to celebrate its 20th birthday. Initially formed in partnership between Lichfield Cathedral and Staffordshire Music Service to bring the joy of singing to the widest possible number of children in the area, the initiative has grown to involve over 25,000 children since its inception.
Noye’s Fludde is one of the medieval Mystery Plays, set to music by Britten in the spirit of the original performances to involve as many members of the community as possible, and the stage was filled over the two nights with the widest possible musical range of performers – I counted 307 names in the programme, plus of course the stunningly energetic director and conductor Cathy Lamb.
The orchestra incorporated a core of professional and good amateur musicians alongside near-beginners, some of whom may have been playing in a big event for the first time.
Noye and his recalcitrant wife (Francis Ambrose and Ailsa Cochrane) were perfect in their roles. Noye obeyed the Voice of God (Jenny Mason) by supervising a very slick building of the ship by his three sons and their wives, to house the family and literally hundreds of animals. Even Mrs Noye was hauled on board, despite the best efforts of her Gossips to keep her on dry land with them.
Not only did the sextet of sons and wives and the six Gossips all sing their challenging parts with great aplomb, but they also acted with conviction.
The sons and wives helped Noye to shepherd hundreds of animals on board, heralded with some fine brass playing. This huge gathering of animals, drawn from 11 schools and singing groups in the area over the two nights, looked and sounded splendid, with the terrifying storm scene acted out most convincingly.
The storm is superbly scored by Britten involving not only traditional string instruments but also recorders of all standards making some wonderfully windy sounds and a splendid array of percussion, even including some slung mugs to depict the start of the rainfall.
At the storm’s height every single person in the building was involved, with the audience joining in the hymn pleading for help from God to save them – all managed and handled with great aplomb by Cathy Lamb. The use of signing added further to both drama and inclusivity.
As the storm died down, the recorders came into their own again, with some lovely flutter-tonguing heralding the delightfully-danced dove, following on from the raven’s dance searching for dry land.
The original Mystery play was probably performed on a cart, but these dancers managed in little more space.
And then came the glorious moment when God sends the rainbow, here represented by lighting and the magical sound of the handbells, followed by the delightfully homemade sun, moon and stars and the great hymn of thanks in which we all participated.
The staging and costumes were deliberately homespun, as Britten intended, and the idea of everyone wearing the specially produced T-shirt was an inspired touch, unifying the cast and also providing a memento of the occasion for all those involved.
This was a most joyous occasion, slickly organised, brilliantly performed, and a truly fitting birthday celebration for MusicShare.
Britten would have been absolutely delighted, as clearly the entire cast and audiences for this very special event were.