The Prodigal Son (Britten)

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The Prodigal Son is an opera by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by William Plomer. Based on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, this was Britten's third "parable for church performance", after Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace. Britten dedicated the score to Dmitri Shostakovich.

The first performance took place on 10 June 1968 in Orford Church, Suffolk.[1] The instrumentalists included the hornist Neill Sanders and the percussionist James Blades. Colin Graham was the stage director.[2]

As with the other church parables, the instrumental forces are very modest: flute, horn, viola, double bass, harp, organ and percussion, with the use of the alto flute and small trumpet in D marking changes compared to the other works. The percussion also incorporates a gourd rattle.[3]


Role Voice type Premiere Cast,
10 June 1968
(Conductor: - )
Tempter/Abbot tenor Peter Pears
The Father bass baritone John Shirley-Quirk
The Younger Son tenor Robert Tear
The Elder Son baritone Bryan Drake[4] [5]
Young Servants and Distant Voices Gerald Beauchamp, Michael Butler, Jonathan Fox, Richard Hopkins, David Rookwood
Chorus: Servants, Parasites,and Beggars


The story centers on a farm family, which consists of a father and his two sons. Servants also help with working the land. The elder son and the servants leave to work the fields for the day. The younger son hears a voice that tempts him to indulge his "most secret longings". The younger son asks his father for his inheritance, which the father grants. The younger son makes his way to the city. There, he is deprived of his fortune and left penniless. The younger son then returns home and asks his father's forgiveness. His father receives his younger son with rejoicing, but the elder son is initially angry at his father's reaction, after he himself has loyally worked the fields. The father rebukes his elder son, and asks him to be reconciled to his younger brother, who has returned to restore the family.


Britten and Viola Tunnard directed the first recording of the work, for the Decca label (original listing, Decca SET 438) with the premiere's cast and players.[6] The full cast of singers is:[7]

  • Tempter/Abbot: Peter Pears
  • The Father: John Shirley-Quirk
  • The Younger Son: Robert Tear
  • The Elder Son: Bryan Drake
  • Chorus of Servants, Parasites and Beggars: Paschal Allen, Carl Duggan, David Hartley, Philip Hooper, Peter Leeming, John McKenzie, Clive Molloy, Paul Wade
  • Young Servants and Distant Voices: Gerald Beauchamp, Michael Butler, Jonathan Fox, Richard Hopkins, David Rookwood



  1. ^ David Matthews, "Britten's The Prodigal Son" Tempo, pp. 28-30 (1968).
  2. ^ Alan Blyth, Obituary: "Colin Graham: Opera director who worked with Britten and premiered many new works in the US", The Guardian (London), 10 April 2007.
  3. ^ Thomas, Christopher J. (1986). "The Church Parables". The Opera Quarterly 4 (3): 178–184. doi:10.1093/oq/4.3.178. Retrieved 2008-05-01. 
  4. ^ Elizabeth Forbes, Obituary: "Bryan Drake", The Independent (London), 2 January 2002
  5. ^ Keith Grant, Obituary: "Bryan Drake: Baritone who premiered roles by Britten",The Guardian (London), 9 April 2002.
  6. ^ Patricia Howard, Review of recording of Britten: The Prodigal Son. Musical Times, pp. 899, 901 (1970).
  7. ^ Recordings of The Prodigal Son on


  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), Viking Opera Guide ed. Holden (Viking, 1993)

External links[edit]

Britten-Pears Foundation, page on The Prodigal Son