Op. 81 (1968)

Third parable for church performance
Libretto by William Plomer after Luke 15:11-32

Duration: 1 hour and 10 minutes
First performance: 10 June 1968, Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival


Tempter/Abbot: Tenor
Father: Bass-baritone
Elder Son: Baritone
Younger Son: Tenor
Chorus of Servants, Parasites and Beggars: 3 tenors, 3 baritones, 2 basses
Young Servants and Distant Voices: 5 trebles

What’s it About?

The Monks enter chanting the plainsong Jam lucis orto sidere. The Abbot, disguised as the Tempter, moves through the congregation introducing the parable to be enacted. The Monks to play the Father and two Sons are prepared for the performance. The Father goes off with the labourers to work in the fields, the Younger Son, encouraged by the Tempter, pleads with his father for his share of the inheritance. His portion duly granted, he heads off for the city with the Tempter at his side. The Parasites urge the Younger Son to indulge in whoring, drinking and gambling. After his period of debauchery, he is left penniless and starving. He decides to begin the journey home. On his arrival, his father greets him and orders a feast in celebration. Amid general rejoicing the Elder Son comes forward to protest at this preferential treatment of the ‘waster’. The father reconciles the two brothers: ‘He was dead and is alive again, was lost, and is found’. The Monks resume their habits and the Abbot draws a moral conclusion. The Monks process away form the acting area, chanting the plainsong which opened the work.

Did You Know?

1. The Prodigal Son is dedicated to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich would in turn dedicate his 14th symphony to Britten.

2. The opera was inspired by seeing Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son during a visit to The Hermitage in St Petersburg in December 1966.

3. Composition was held up while Britten was admitted to Ipswich Hospital for a month in 1968, suffering from bacterial endocarditis.

4. The chorus has a much fuller role in The Prodigal Son than it does in the previous two Church Parables.

5. Although collectively known as the three Church Parables, Britten commented in interview in 1967 that he was ‘doing another church opera to go with the other two, Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, to make a kind of trilogy’.

Britten and Pears with the Queen Mother, after a performance at the King’s Lynn Festival. Britten and Pears were staying as guests of the Queen Mother at Sandringham in July 1968. Photograph: Alan Howard.


Alto flute (doubling piccolo), horn, trumpet in D, viola, double bass, harp, percussion (5 small unturned drums, small Chinese cymbal, conical gourd rattle, large tuned gong (F), 2 tuned woodblocks (A, D#), high pitch woodblock), chamber organ

On-stage: small drum (tambour), small cymbal, tambourine, sistrum (jingle rattle), small bell-lyra


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