The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son is the third and last of Britten’s church parables, chambers operas which he wrote for church performance. Sparsely orchestrated and economically cast, each parable is loaded with musical and dramatic action that brings these timeless conflicts to life. Premiered in 1968, The Prodigal Son is considered the greatest of the three church parables. It begins with twelve monks and an abbot chanting in a church. As the abbot begins to tell the biblical story of the prodigal son, he takes on the role of the Tempter; three other monks emerge from the group as the forgiving Father, the fastidious Elder Son, and the Younger Son, who is tempted by the outside world and returns repentant. The story is simple and familiar to many, but Britten brings it to life by assigning an instrument to each character. The trumpet is the Tempter who blasts his seductions into the Younger Son’s ear. His opposite is the mellow Alto Flute of the Father. Caught in the middle is the complex Younger Son, almost Faustian in his restlessness and quest for knowledge and experience. In the premiere production, Britten’s evocative sound world was doubled by the traditional masks and gestures of Japanese Noh theater, emphasizing the universal themes of repentance and forgiveness.

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