The Chester Miracle Play set to music

By Benjamin Britten

Music in the Morning

St Andrew's-Wesley Church, Vancouver BC

Thursday, 23 November 2000


by June Heywood

Three hundred and fifty-seven children with two adults mingle on stage as their voices blend in singing with the full-house audience led by a fine orchestra.

Benjamin Britten takes a 15th Century Miracle Play -- the familiar story of Noah, his family, and the ark into which a pair of every living creature clambered to escape the forty days and nights of rain --and turns it into an opera for children. The story represents human's sinfulness, God's anger, a command obeyed, forgiveness, and God's promise to humankind.

The orchestra tunes up. The bows and hands are poise but still. The Music Director/Conductor, Bruce Pullan, mounts the lectern and turns to the audience. With humour and lightness, Pullan sets the mood as he encourages the patrons of every voice to practice singing the words to three traditional hymns that are sung with the cast during the program. The music includes Tallis's well-known Canon.

The orchestra is made up of individuals playing strings, brass, recorder, piano (four hands), organ, bugles, and timpani/percussion. The Intermediate Academy members play violins, violas, and cellos. Langley School District #35 add to the enjoyment of the music with their handbells. Under Pullan's leadership this multi-talented orchestra is strong yet unobtrusive.

The opera begins with Noah (professional bass-baritone Gary Relyea) having trouble with his gossipy wife (also professional, soprano Anna Tamm-Relyea) and her drinking buddies. She has to be shoved onto the ark for which he gets a slap on his face. The tipsy women scatter to be later drowned in the flood, offstage.

Gary Relyea is well cast. He has great stage presence and a rich, round voice that carries well. Anna Tamm-Relyea is less clear in her pronunciation but she well makes up for this with her expressive body language. Richard De Villier, The Voice of God, is appropriately plumy.

On God's command, Noah calls a pair of every creature on earth to join him on the ark and escape the rising waters. To the repeated chant, Kyrie eleison (God have mercy), the cast of children stream onto the stage in exquisite, detailed masks made by Carol Coulson Productions.

The tall animals enter first -- giraffes, elephants, llamas, etc. -- followed by pandas, tigers, a lion and lioness (such fine detail is typical), and other medium sized creatures; then the tiny mammals (who stayed in character throughout with their paws up), and the scurrying bugs. Following behind them are birds of every hue that glitter and gleam.

They all pack into the ark, some in the thatched enclosure, some "under" the deck, and the remainder sleep beneath the rigging and along the starboard. Finally, the whales and sea creatures appear among the waves, great and small.

Now the wind begins to blow; gently at first and then louder and louder. The rain falls faster and faster. The waves swell and crash. The music reaches a crescendo. All the animals scream in fear at the top of their lungs (the little ones love this part).

The Stage Director/Choreographer, Carol Coulson, uses the stage to excellent effect fitting all the creatures/children in the ark and leaving enough space in front of it for the waves, ravens, and doves to perform their gymnastic ballet numbers.

The rain stops. Noah sends out two ravens and then two doves. The doves return with olive twigs in their beaks to show that the flood is going down:  there is dry land, and there is hope.

A huge fan-shaped, multi-coloured rainbow appears. The sun comes out, then a gossamer, pink moon shrouded by a cloud. Finally, out come the glittering gold stars shimmering and sparkling with comet-like silver tails. The audience joins the players singing the last hymn and Noah, his family and the two of every kind melt away to a packed house of thunderous applause.