St. Mary’s Cathedral was filled almost to capacity Sunday afternoon, as the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, aided by a whole host of child performers, brought pageant to the community in a perfectly delightful setting.
The libretto for Noye’s Fludde (Medieval English spelling for “Noah’s Flood”) was drawn by composer Benjamin Britten from a 15th century drama in the city of Chester, and recast as a modern-day 50-minute showpiece for young singers and actors. The composer was always very specific in how he conceived of this work, as one designed specifically for children, and to be performed, in his words, in a large building, preferably a church, but not a theatre.
Conductor Leo Najar was very careful to draw on the spirit Britten’s original intentions, making sure that the orchestra was made up of only a few professionals (there were only 10 SBSO members scattered throughout the sections), and the rest area amateurs and students, the youngest of which was 8! Present also were a handbell choir and unusual percussion equipment, including a rack of “slung mugs,” specified by the composer to simulate the sound of rain hitting the ground and the ark, as well as vividly displaying the storm that grew out of it.
Kathleen Scott, who produced the performance and assisted Najar with the stage direction, must be singled out for special praise. Playing wrangler to all of the myriad aspects that it took to bring this performance to such a successful conclusion must have been a logistical nightmare, though undoubtedly she was aided by manager Tamara Grefe, Najar himself, and a host of community volunteers.
Baritone Daniel S. Gale was outstanding as Noah, with clear voice and careful attention not only to his own character, but also to the vicissitudes of almost literally shepherding a cast of scores of youngsters weaving in and out of the stage area. The only other two adult performers were alto Maureen White-Goeman, who adopted the cantankerous nature of Mrs. Noah perfectly, and the off-stage Voice of God, magisterially intoned by Anthony Lynch.
As the sons and daughters-in-law of the pair were youngsters Anthony Lynch, Ben Iwen, Christina Largent, Anthony Phillips, Maryel Harris, and Kayla Howell, all of whom performed with attention to detail and bright clear voices.
Carolanne Killmer’s elegant choreography of the waltzes written for the two birds sent out by Noah to see if the waters had receded was danced gracefully by Trisha Barnett and Kelley Priem. The three “Gossips,” in whose company Mrs. Noah initially prefers to stay rather than going with her family in the ark, were sung by Marion Adler, Ashley Anderson, and Whitney Dake, whose mockingly conspiratorial attitudes were right on the mark. The menagerie of animals comprised 56 young people, drawn from 7 area schools and churches, all very well prepared by Chorus Master Gregory Largent, and either toting or wearing Ralph Hoy’s perfectly delightful animal puppet creations.
Steven Erickson’s set was a minimalist delight, naively evocative, and perfectly situated under St. Mary’s constellation of golden stars suspended from the ceiling. Kudos also must go to painter Debra Erickson, who brought the sun and moon back from the deluge.
In the work, the audience is drawn into participation, by being asked to sing in three different sections, from an ancient Christian hymn, to a canon by English early Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and what we know as the “Naval Hymn,” sung as the ark tosses wildly on the storming flood. It was particularly poignant to sing this last, barely more than a day since the loss of the Columbia shuttle, given the hymn’s call for protection “for those in peril” on such a journey.
Najar has long shown an affinity for the two things most in evidence, the staging of opera, and the gift of community involvement in the music making he and the SBSO have always done. There seemed no one in the entire cathedral who was not moved by both.