Tuesday, April 01, 2014
SF Girls Chorus in Noye's Fludde
The San Francisco Girls Chorus celebrated their 35th anniversary last Saturday with a gala dinner at Temple Emanu-El on Arguello Street followed by a performance of Benjamin Britten's one-act opera for children and adults, Noye's Fludde.
Thank the Goddess, Noah was sung not by Russell Crowe but by bass-baritone Noah Chappell above while his gossipy, drunken wife was sung by Sylvie Jensen. They were both spectacularly good performers who made the vernacular 15th century English of the original English "Miracle Play" easily comprehensible. The conducting by Music Director Valerie Sainte-Agathe of a chamber orchestra consisting of San Francisco Conservatory players was also top notch, and brought out the astringent beauty of the score. The various divisions of the Girls Chorus were also musically stunning as some contingents flanked the audience, others swarmed the altar representing the animals in the ark, and a separate group played Sons, Wives, and Gossips.
There were some major miscalculations, though, that kept the performance from hitting its emotional mark. Britten very deliberately wrote the opera as a community music education pageant, with parts written in the orchestra and in the chorus for both professionals and amateurs, adults and children of varying levels of musical sophistication. Even the audience is included, with three of the opera's choruses requiring their participation. The one time I heard this piece live, we were coached for fifteen minutes before the performance by the conductor, and the results were thrilling, with professional voices from the altar blending with the in-and-out-of-tune congregation. On Saturday, we were handed printed lyrics for the choruses without music, but there was no audience preparation so in the big numbers there was mostly a resounding silence in the synagogue because people didn't know the tunes.
The main theatrical coup of Noye's Fludde is usually the children's chorus costumed in cute animal outfits marching up the center aisle to the ark while singing a rhythmically catchy version of Kyrie Eleison and playing toy instruments. In this staging, uniformed girls entered the front altar from the sides, while holding up cutouts of various animals rather than instruments, which felt like a lost opportunity. It was as if the Triumphal March in Verdi's Aida was staged with robed supernumeraries running onto the stage, then standing and waving their loot around for ten minutes.
Still, thanks to the SF Girls Chorus for performing the piece, which should be a staple of every youth music organization in the world. Special props should also go out to the horn players on Saturday, though I wish a few had been stationed in the balcony for the stirring, lovely finale. As for the singsong, rhyme-time delivery over a microphone that A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff offered as the Voice of God, the less said the better.