UTAH OPERA "THE PRODIGAL SON," Cathedral of the Madeleine, May 26, 8 p.m.
Kill the fatted calf and make merry. Utah Opera and the Madeleine Festival brought their survey of Benjamin Britten's three Church Parables home triumphantly Sunday with a stunning presentation of the last of them, from 1968, "The Prodigal Son."
Like most of Britten's operas, this one is best experienced in the theater - or in this case the church - and the result was yet another SRO house for the final event in this year's festival. So much so that the crowd had to be parted to let the chanting monks who enter from the rear make their candelit way to the raised platform at the front of the cathedral for the opera proper.
They are, of course, the singer/actors in this brilliant fusion of Japanese Noh theater and medieval religious drama. But as they donned their costumes for the story itself the illusion was unbroken, as Britten leads the listener, and the viewer, into his special world, then back again.
The guide this time was the Abbot/Tempter, spectacularly realized by tenor Robert Breault. Strikingly costumed in red, purple and silver, with a mask surmounted by stylized horns, he made this role his own through superbly nuanced singing in which every word and phrase were thrillingly projected.
That ranged from his opening "Amen," ringingly sounded from the rear, to his subtle exhortations to the Younger Son ("Imagine/-imagine/What you are missing") and ultimate sense of having brought him low ("Now/you/-have/nothing/Now/you are/-nothing" - this last half-spoken).
As the object of his machinations, tenor Steven Paul Spears remained innocent in voice and manner, making the Younger Son more sympathetic than is sometimes the case. You were glad to see him reunited with his Father, here nobly intoned by bass-baritone Frank A. Basile. Yet earlier it was hard not to smile as he literally fell in step with the Tempter as they made their way to the city, chiming in on the text and the musical line - but, as Britten directs, just a hair late.
As the Elder Son, baritone Marc Weagraff might have registered more strongly, something that occasionally seemed true of the musical direction, here in the hands of conductor Robert Debbaut. Nonetheless the latter kept things moving where they sometimes don't and let his eight-member ensemble underline the drama with a wealth of instrumental detail.
That was particularly true of Roberta Zalkind's artfully varied viola solos, though similarly positive contributions were to be heard from the harp and chamber organ, among others.
Even more idiomatic was the somewhat disembodied choral sound, very much in keeping with the music's semi-angular austerity. Alexander Gelman's stage direction was similarly stylized, so that there was actually more color and excitement in Susan Memmott Allred's costumes and the singing.
But that is to some extent the point of the stylization - to let the music and the universality of the drama shine through. Which they did magnificently, as that which was lost was found and that which was dead was made alive.