The relatively new company Opera Brittenica gave a welcome performance of The Burning Fiery Furnace on May 8th and 9th at All Saints Parish in Brookline. Donald Teeters conducted and Erin Huelskamp directed. First, they are to be commended for presenting this little-performed work not as a museum piece, but with a distinct vision for its production. The impressive design (here I must mention Anita Shriver, Juliana Beecher, Kristen Connolly, and Elizabeth Stone for designing the props, lighting, costumes, and makeup, respectively) puts this vision at the forefront, and may have caused a few viewers to take more notice of the visual presentation than the music itself. The audience, a respectable size for such a new group, seemed largely excited about a rare chance to experience the work; when this reviewer opened a score before the start, he was immediately joined by patrons at each side, peering at the oddity we were about to hear.
In the event, and probably for the best, the church was kept too dark to follow the score or the complete libretto that OB thoughtfully included in the program. The concept of the production cast the false god of the Babylonians as money/technology. They carried smartphones and tablets, tapping away in stylized movements while moving about the stage like robots. The darkness heightened the impact of the light sources: LED lights, candles, the screens of the smartphones, and, in a climactic moment, the brightly lit graven image—resembling a slot machine—at which the Babylonians genuflected.
The Burning Fiery Furnace is the second of a trilogy of “Parables for Church Performance” that occupied Britten for much of the 1960s. This new form followed from several antecedents: his experiments with chamber opera in the late 1940s, his fascination with medieval mystery plays, and his travels in Asia in 1956. After Noye’s Fludde in 1958, Britten developed the parables with the same director (Colin Graham) for the same venue (Orford church); rather than the melding earthy street drama with hymnody and a touch of Eastern influence, as in Noye’s Fludde, the later works sought to create a fusion of mystery play with the stylized ritual of Japanese Noh drama and used plainchant as their motivic generator and framing device.
The current production, then, was right at home in All Saints, and I appreciate how the production was not shoehorned into the church space, but used its elements to its advantage: fugitives hid behind pillars, King Nebuchadnezzar slowly ascended the pulpit steps to a bare viola accompaniment, and the aisles were used for spacious processions. The graven image was built into the lectern and revealed with a sudden flourish. While the furnace burned, the shadows of the three Israelites were projected effectively on the back wall of the chancel. The resonance of the church made diction a challenge, especially for group singing. The (nearly) all-male ensemble sang with power, but much of the language was a mystery. The solo roles achieved more clarity: Marcos Vigil sang King Nebuchadnezzer with bright conviction, and Robert Honeysucker distinguished himself as the Astrologer, although his costume brought to mind the Terminator. The trio of Israelites were the vocal heroes of the night, displaying an impressive range: from anguished cries that tripped over each other to the haunting “Lord, Help us in our Loneliness,” sung in a fearless pianissimo. Each also displayed effective acting chops – indeed, as the only actors whose faces were unencumbered by masks, they took full advantage.
The instrumental ensemble is central to Britten’s unusual concept for the Church Parables, but Opera Brittenica chose to iron out some of the unique prescriptions in his score. The instrumentation is quite unusual–flute, viola, horn, alto trombone, double bass, harp, organ and percussion–and the group played very well. The musical material is also quite atypical. Prominent Eastern influences, including Britten’s own take on heterophony, some extended techniques (fluttertonguing and turning the bass into hand percussion), and a pervasive reference to plainsong all combine to create a type of chamber music, sparse in texture due to the instrumentation but dense in motive. In fact, a singular aspect of Britten’s score is that the players and singers are to operate without a conductor. Some advance publicity had Donald Teeters leading the opera, which held out hope that he would prepare the players to perform without a conductor. Ultimately, he did conduct throughout, and I imagine that both players and singers were grateful, given the technical challenges. The score makes room for individual players to operate in different tempos and meters; Britten created markings to indicate when a player needed to lead the ensemble or wait for another line to catch up. As I understand it, Britten and Colin Graham’s original concept also placed the players in costume, close to the action on a specially designed stage, and required the instrumentalists to take part in the Babylonian procession.
It is perhaps not surprising that these most distinctive features were not included; Britten’s performers at the Aldeburgh Festival were all close colleagues who worked together often. In the freelance world that most companies will find themselves, is the cooperative performance possible?
Devoted and alert fans were able to see all three of the parables in our area this year: Mark Morris along with Tanglewood Music Center Fellows gave a performance of Curlew River last summer, and Intermezzo Opera gave The Prodigal Son in April. (Incidentally, only the Tanglewood production proceeded without a conductor.) As the Britten centenary fades, one looks to Opera Brittenica to continue the focus on his unusual stage works; according to its website, the Turn of The Screw is planned for Halloween. Although hardly neglected (it was heard in Boston about 15 months ago), the company seems to hold great potential for a memorable and unusual production.