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Subject: The Promise, QEH London 17 March 1997
From: "H.E.Elsom" <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Wed, 19 Mar 1997 23:08:07 +0000
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The Promise, by Jill Townsend (based on Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the
Apostle), produced by Opera Brava

God        Andew Mayor
Satan      Peter Bradford
Gabriel    Iwona Januszajitis
John the baptist
           Christopher Parke
Jesus      David Ashmore Turner
Mary       Amanda Buckland
Elizabeth  Louise Lavilles
Joanna     Iwona Januszajitis
Mary Magdalene
           Judy Slater
Saul/Paul  Ross Campbell
Gamaliel   Christopher Parke
Luke       Bronek Pomorski
Peter      Robert Carlin
John the apostle
           Andrew Mayor

Children's choruses (crowd, children, Pharisees, soldiers)

Director   Adrian Hilton
Conductor  Keith Wills

I originally noticed this work in the South Bank programme because I'd been
wondering vaguely whether there was any material for opera in the Acts of
the Apostles. It's the result of a two-term project by Opera Brava, a
Christian music-education group, and a number of London primary schools,
and it isn't really what I was thinking of. I booked with some misgivings,
as the listing offered half price for under 16s, and as I expected, I was
probably the only person in the audience not related to one of the
performers, who included about 200 5-9 year olds. But I have to say that I
thoroughly enjoyed it, and was also cheered greatly that children are doing
such good performance work.

The first act consisted of a brief prologue, the creation, followed by the
life of Jesus according to selected scenes from Luke, up to the
crucifixion. The second act consisted of the resurrection narrative from
Luke, and scenes from Acts up to the conversion of Paul and his acceptance
by the Christians, followed by a finale of Christ in glory.

The general shape of the work was similar to a mystery play, with a cosmic
frame and simple scenes aimed at an audience who already know the story,
plus a few comic or entertaining segments. The libretto didn't seem to use
much scriptural text, if any, though there was a odd mixture of
colloquialisms that made me think of the Good News Bible at times. Instead,
it presented the main themes of each scene in choruses and arias, with some
help from other gospels and the interpretative traditions, but no sectarian
contentions. For example, John preached to competing choruses of ordinary
Jewish people, Pharisees and Roman soldiers. Some of this was done to
provide interesting music for the children (for example, a lively
interchange between shepherds about watching sheep), but the overall result
certainly counts as operatic.

The music was somewhere between Noyes Fludde and Andew Lloyd Webber (yes,
Jesus had a multicoloured coat). There were a couple of pastiche Bach
arias, and some Israeli-style folksiness.

The best parts were the children's choruses, all based on simple parts sung
together multo con brio. Particularly impressive was a sung and acted
version of the parables of the houses build on rock and sand, and of the
sower.

Also effective was Mary's lament, first sung in sympathy with the widow of
Nain and then reprised very movingly at the crucifixion. (I heard someone
say that Amanda Buckland had sung this in their church the weekend before
-- it was clearly suitable for liturgical use, Surprisingly, given the
background to the work, very few other parts of it would be.)

The adult singers were all professionals, and delivered commitment if not
always great vocal style. Judy Slater, as Mary Magdalene, was impressive --
she also sings Carmen in Opera Brava's production, and looks perfect for
the part.

The main problem I found thinking about this performance afterwards was
that it is essentially preaching to the converted, literally. Although
Jesus happened to be doe-eyed and long haired, he was also presented in an
anodyne way. And although the suffering of Mary and the early Christians
was presented vividly, I got little sense of the power of Christ's message
that was supposed to justify it all, or of the spirituality involved. But I
suppose that wasn't the point -- it was an outstanding work for the
children involved to perform, and they obviously got a lot out of it.

I wish that Handel had done another Saul, about the man from Tarsus.

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