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Peter Dyson (FHM Board member) writes about a visit in June 2013 to St Petersburg by Mahogany Opera, who performed all three of Benjamin Britten’s Church Parables.  The Return of the Prodigal Son was performed in the magnificent Hermitage Theatre, not far from Rembrandt’s famous painting of the same name.

Accompanying the opera company was Jane-Eve Straughton, who is Executive Director of The Opera Group and also happens to be another FHM Board member.

Peter Dyson writes:

The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has over 3 million works of art and artifacts. If you spend one minute looking at each one of them, then it will take you 9 years to go round (during opening hours only).

There are some pictures in the galleries that root you to the spot. Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of them. The art historian Kenneth Clark is quoted as saying that “those who have seen the original in Leningrad may be forgiven for claiming it as the greatest picture ever painted”.

Benjamin Britten came to Leningrad in 1966 and after seeing The Return of the Prodigal Son wrote his final Church Parable – The Prodigal Son. This was performed in Orford Church on 10th June 1968 and was dedicated to Dmitri Shostakovich.

It was most fitting therefore in Britten’s 100th Anniversary Year that Mahogany Opera brought all three Church Parables to St Petersburg in June 2013, in a staging by Frederic Wake-Walker. The Prodigal Son was performed on the opening night of this unique, rare treat in The Hermitage Theatre itself and of course we stood in front of Rembrandt’s picture beforehand.

Curlew River (1964) was performed the following evening Wednesday, and then The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) on Thursday.  The cast were allowed an evening off before all three were performed back-to-back on Saturday; a first time ever! These latter performances were all staged in St Catherine’s Lutheran Church on Vasilievsky Island. This worshiping space added just that extra bit of atmosphere needed for these works that a theatre cannot provide; even one as magnificent as the Hermitage Theatre. And yes, it was standing room only! Russians like their Britten. He visited seven times between 1963 and 1971. There were people at these performances who had not only met him but who had performed for him.

I have lived in St Petersburg for 17 years now and this sort of magic happens frequently. I don’t get that many visitors so it was delightful to have another Friends House Moscow Board Member in the city. And she just happens to be Executive Director of The Opera Group, where she works with Wake-Walker as Artistic Director. Jane-Eve came a day after the rest of the company and so I met her at the airport. In typical St Petersburg fashion the buildings on the street she was staying in had no numbers. A helpful babushka let us through the archway gate into the court yard but none of the staircase entrances had numbers. In the second courtyard the sound of a French Horn on the top floor gave the game away so we knew we were in the right place. And then we went off to find the others in the rehearsal in the Hermitage.

In the days of the cold war Quakers were one of the few groups that maintained a dialogue with the Soviet Union. Post perestroika the general perception appeared to be that this dialogue no longer needed to be maintained. That was a mistake. I would suggest that recent events show that the need for dialogue is as great as it ever was. Next year (2014) is Russia-UK Culture Year. Can you afford to miss it.