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Benjamin Britten’s declared christian beliefs aside, one can only imagine what he would have thought about the prospect of his secular operas and church parables (religious in intent though they were) being described as ‘holy theatre’. In her newly published doctoral dissertation, Ba Diana argues that the notion sits at the very heart of Britten’s dramatic works – whether conceived for the opera house or the church nave – and can be identified and traced in the arc of the composer’s output from the ‘traditional late 19th-century romantic opera structure’ of Peter Grimes, through the ‘experimental format’ of the church parables, and on to his operatic swansong, Death in Venice.

It’s a fascinating and well argued proposition but Diana never fully persuades that what determined Britten’s development was ‘his intention to use the stage as a pulpit to express his philosophical views’, or convinces at all that he aspired to create ‘a form of theatre that corresponds to the definition of ‘holy’ in order to communicate in a suitable context spiritual truths’.

In failing to fully draw out the dimensions of Britten’s own religious convictions, and to discuss in any significant detail the concept of ‘holy theatre’ as coined by Peter Brook in his book The Empty Space – published in 1968 long after many of Britten’s works discussed here by Diana were first staged – she leaves her own arguments exposed, weakened and lacking the support of any substantial (or at least wholly persuasive) evidence to corroborate it.

Even so, there is much of interest in a book marked by a readably clean and clear writing style. The discussion of nascent ideas in Peter Grimes and their coming into focus in the church parables makes interesting connections between such superficially different works that are worth greater interrogation. The sensitively drawn thumbnail portrait of the composer threaded through the book is both intelligent, sympathetic and involving.

It’s a pity that Diana’s dissertation appears to have been lifted straight to the page with little accommodation of the needs of the general reader – so expect copious footnotes but no index. The extensive ‘selected’ bibliography, however, offers ample encouragement for further reading.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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