By Elizabeth Kramer for Courier-Journal
A Louisville east end church seemed to be turned back in time as men in brown monks robes strode down the aisle to mount the central raised platform singing the music of composer Benjamin Britten in his 1968 opera “The Prodigal Son.”
Their entrance in the Kentucky Opera’s and the Louisville Choral Arts Society’s joint production of this nearly one-hour opera marked the beginning of a captivating evening at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Harrods Creek. The opera, directed by Thomson Smillie, entailed the group soon transforming themselves into performers to begin telling the story that maintains such power even in modern times.
Moving performances by members of the opera’s studio artist program in the roles of the two sons, their father and the Abbott, who becomes a tempter in the monks’ play, infused the parable’s themes of temptation, loss and forgiveness with deep emotion.
Soon after the monks’ entrance, the music melted from that echoing the medieval era to a mix of sounds imbued with the music of Asia evoking the journey’s of other 20th century composers into music from lands far from their own.
This mutation blends effectively with the parable, familiar to almost anyone who grew up in the Christian tradition, about the son, bored with life on his father’s farm, who asks for his inheritance to go seek an exciting life in a far-off city.
Tenor Patrick MacDevitt as the young son befittingly looked a bit like a confused adolescent thinking about his life as the tempter, authoritatively sung by tenor Brad Raymond, lurked behind him chronicling the son’s dreary life and detailing the thrilling one beyond the farm. His capable singing accompanied a strong performance that must illustrate a journey with a powerful transformation. As the son, he doesn’t quite get what he’s bargained for. He gambles his money away and then a famine hits compelling him to go back home to his father in shame. Throughout MacDevitt gave his character the feeling naively experiencing so much in the world for the first-time.
As the tempter, Raymond’s power held firm throughout not only in his performance held bore not only a wickedness, but a strength that his voice held concisely throughout the production as did his ability to convey nuance.
While John Arnold, the bass-baritone who played the father, had limited time on stage, his notable voice has a clarity and range that gave the production an added radiance. (With his beard, he also looks a bit like Justin Timberlake.) Opera audiences would be fortunate to hear more of him.
The seven-piece ensemble, led by music director James Rightmyer, was tight, especially working with the often complicated rhythms and percussion that are part of the score. Hearing the combination of viola, bass, flute, horn, trumpet and percussion along with a harp reinforces the power and creativeness of Britten’s work.