CAMBRIDGE — Back in 2006, the local chamber-opera company Intermezzo presented “Curlew River,” the first of Benjamin Britten’s three “Parables for Church Performance,” at the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston. This past weekend, in the centennial year of Britten’s birth, Intermezzo staged the third “Parable,” “The Prodigal Son,” at First Church, Congregational, helped by what it described as a “generous grant” from the Britten-Pears Foundation. The money was well spent.
Britten wrote the three “Parables” between 1964 and 1968. “Curlew River” is based on a Japanese noh play; the second “Parable,” “The Burning Fiery Furnace,” draws on the biblical Book of Daniel, and “The Prodigal Son” on the Gospel of Luke. In their style, all three meld elements of noh, the medieval English mystery play, and the English mummers’ play. Each begins and ends with a procession of monks singing plainchant, as if they were traveling players come to town to put on a show.
“The Prodigal Son,” its text by William Plomer, has four main players: the Father, the Elder Son, the Younger Son (all familiar from Jesus’parable), and a Tempter who persuades the Younger Son to ask his Father for his inheritance so he can go out and “see the world.” The remaining monks form an ensemble who do triple duty as the Father’s servants, the Younger Son’s disreputable companions out in the world, and beggars in the time of famine. An eight-piece orchestra — piccolo-alto flute, viola, double bass, French horn, trumpet, harp, organ, and percussion — punctuates the singing; the viola is associated with the Younger Son, the percussion with the Elder Son, the alto flute with the Father.
Plomer’s text can venture into banality when it strays from Luke; in the context of the stylized movement and singing, the Elder Son’s “You take me for granted” complaint to his Father sounds uncomfortably colloquial. But Plomer also creates some touching moments, like the Younger Son’s “Brother, do not think ill of me” before departing. The Elder Son is the dutiful one here; the Younger Son is the dreamer. “Have you not had enough of this quiet life you lead?” the Younger Son is asked by the Tempter, the snake in this Garden of Eden. And he takes a bite of the Tempter’s apple, receiving his portion in the form of sumptuous robes from his Father, then going out and exchanging most of them, rather halfheartedly, for wine and the “delights of the flesh” before losing what’s left in games of chance. That prompts a gleeful “I have broken up the family — see how I broke it up” refrain from the Tempter. But the family has the last word.
The Intermezzo production began in simulated candlelight, the monks chanting as they processed from the back of the church to the sanctuary, where they mounted a low platform and donned their performance costumes. The lights came up on William Fregosi’s handsome hand-painted triptych backdrop, which in the simplicity of its feeling recalled Georges Rouault’s décor for George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” ballet. An orange-and-yellow sun radiated over a pastoral paradise with its humble farmhouse and lake and blue sky and bunches of grapes and shocks of grain. “He has given us peace, seed time and harvest,” Paul Guttry’s Father sang, before sending his two sons and the workers out to the fields.
Guttry was a patient and understanding father, letting his Younger Son go without complaint (“I have been young myself”) and welcoming him back without hesitation. David McFerrin was a stern Elder Son; it was clear from the way he strode out into the fields while Matthew DiBattista’s slow-moving Younger Son held back that there was no love lost between them. And Jason McStoots was a wheedling Tempter backed by sarcastic trumpet outbursts.
Guttry, McFerrin, and McStoots all perform with Blue Heron, whose local concerts are given in this space, so they understand First Church’s resonant acoustic. DiBattista also sang powerfully, and I liked his dazed response to McStoots’s blandishments. I liked the fluttering effect that Britten’s heterophonic writing for the chorus created. I liked the impromptu look of Rebecca Butler’s costumes, from Guttry’s white mop of a beard to McStoots’s red kimono with black and silver obi and flaming crown. The orchestra under Edward Jones was pointed and poignant, doing justice to the composer’s dedication of his score to Dmitri Shostakovich. Best of all was the final tableau that stage director Kirsten Z. Cairns created, where, after the Father has forgiven the Prodigal, his brother does also. Ample reason to hope Intermezzo can program “The Burning Fiery Furnace” in the near future.