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Enigma Heats Up Its Britten


Enigma Chamber Opera reached a major milestone this past weekend in Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace, concluding a four-year project of staging Britten’s three parables for church performance. The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston provided an ideal venue for the occasion which, coinciding with the beginning of Lent, encouraged the audience to seek righteousness—not through ‘right’ beliefs, but rather through just actions, as Artistic Director Kirsten Cairns explained in a spoken enlargement on her notes. In addition to the piece’s overt religious messages, Cairns interpreted the work in light of William Butler Yeats’s eschatological maxim:“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Without a centered perspective, it is impossible to see beyond the black and white dichotomy prevailing ideologies espouse. However, in this parable to a libretto by William Plomer, Britten offers us a playbook for how we can center ourselves and act justly. We should not be like Nebuchadnezzar, here portrayed by tenor Matthew DiBattista as a well-meaning, benevolent monarch, lacking in deep convictions and thus easily persuaded, nor should we imitate the Astrologer, only seeking to preserve our own interests. Rather, Britten upholds three three Israelites as living saints for their tempered response and steadfast commitment to ideals—qualities lacking in our modern world.

Many aspects of the production mirrored these attitudes. The out-in-the-open production created a visually delightful exposure of the art of dramaturgy with the aesthetics of a David Koresh documentary. All of the musicians sat on stage, in keeping with Britten’s vision that the work be communal effort. It began with an ‘audience hug’ when singers arose from the audience to join the opening chorus (a solemn rendition of Salus Aeterna from the liturgy for Daily Prayer) in procession to the stage where the ‘priest’ and ‘congregants’ decided they would stage a play for the benefit of the assembled. The actors dawned the clothing of the 21st-century male, including Jeans, khakis, mismatched flannel, and sweaters pulled over dress shirts.

The striking dearth of religious imagery in the production allowed for other themes of the drama to emerge through Paul Marr’s brilliant lighting design, which communicated, at times, more than Brittan’s score. Pungent colors of red, blue, and orange set the scene and told the audience whether we were in the domain of Babylon or the sphere of Jewish resistance. Marr reserved the most violent hues of amber and jasper for the drama’s titular furnace when dynamic shades animated the spiraling volutes the pilasters’ Ionic capitols. The snake-like coils seemed to creep further into the scene with the agony of the torture. Peter Torpey  projected a provocative slideshow into the wall paneling that flanks the reredos. Images of the Ishtar Gate, golden lions, table spreads, and oil rigs commented on the action. (The oil rigs and scenes of drought accompanied the first acolyte’s line ‘The waters of Babylon, the flowing waters, all ran dry, Do you know why?’) The recurring juxtaposition of the constellation of Leo and a tree provoked some wonderment among the audience. They accompanied scenes when both the trio of protagonists and the Astrologer appeared on stage underlining a black-and-white duality to the conflict.

This seemed insignificant, though, compared to the maleficence radiating through Merodak’s anthem. As the Babylonians sang in praise of their Jovian god, the stage lighting flickered to its brightest and bloodiest crimsons with projected images of what appeared to be present-day US military cast in dichromatic fire engine red and electric yellow. Some recurring images included a parade of tanks and shots of servicemen marching in formation very much invoking the image of goose-stepping soldiers. In light of Cairns explicit mention of antisemitism and the on-going violence in the Levant in her pre-concert talk, I wondered about her intended message. Should we equate the United States military with an iron age death cult? Is the United States government the biggest threat to Jewish people in the 21st century? I wouldn’t have thought about it except for Cairns’s politicizing introduction.

The Cathedral of Saint Paul heats up (Ashlee-Rose Scott photo)

Paul Soper brought a compelling direction to every scene he occupied. As the herald for the king, his commanding stage presence caused many in the audience to straighten in their chairs when he called the room to attention. The room shook with every footstep he took as he led the party of Babylonians up and down the nave’s central aisle. When shouting orders at those on stage, he teased the audience as he approached but did not trample on the labyrinth’s central oculus. Its tentacles spread beneath all of our chairs and threatened to swallow us.

As Priest and Astrologer (simultaneously the ultimate hero and villain of the story), Aaron Engebreth provoked questions about the reification of power dynamics in the community. Costume designer Rebecca Shannon Butler outfitted him with accoutrements of authority. As priest, the white collar and violet shirt spoke to the penitential aspect of the drama while his crooked walking stick invoked darker meanings. At once a shaman’s staff and magic wand, Engebreth used the implement as an extension of his person, overshadowing those he spoke to by framing them between himself and his club. The serpentine twists of the cane became a character, seeming at times to command the Astrologer.

Music Director Edward Jones valiantly led the band of merry musicians from the organ, often conducting while playing. The group realized a surprising range of textures from Britten’s minimal orchestration. Emily Rome, viola; and Daniel Gorn, double bass; enhanced the stringy tones of the organ with a lusher, dynamic tone that blended elegantly into the sensitive chordal sweeps of Angelina Savoia’s harp. The brass and percussion countered these dulcet qualities with brash militarism, heightening the drama at its most climactic scenes. However, these two groups often sparred with balance issues that usually drowned out the voices. Perhaps, being positioned in the apse, they did not realize how the curved surfaces, which beautifully blend notes in the chancel, projected their sound over the singers and into the audience. Despite the challenges of the space, cut-offs were surprisingly clean from downstage soloists who could not possibly see Jones’s gestures. And though the room did not resonate easily with bass notes, the all-male chorus still managed to produce a broad, rich sound from either end of the nave.

David McFerrin, Jesse Darden, and Daniel Fridley, as Ananias, Misael and Asarias (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), formed a well-balanced, heroic trifecta. The three projected compelling, individualized emotional responses to the narrative, giving the audience a range of feelings to hold onto. Darden respond to most things with sheer confoundment with hints of denial. Our eyes met Fridley who often stood near to Darden as he displayed sensitivity. McFerrin guided the group, standing with stern defiance and often imploring his fellow countrymen to not lose faith. While they expressed this dynamic effectively through solos, their trios proved the most compelling.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Hi Christopher! Thank you for your generous review. I’m so glad that you enjoyed and were inspired by our production of The Burning Fiery Furnace. I wanted to clarify one thing, if I may: there was no US military imagery in the production. Britten’s ‘Merodak’ theme does indeed evoke terror, and clearly suggests the dangers of jingoistic worship of military might. To accompany this, we used imagery from regimes generally regarded as oppressive; I do not include America in that category. My curtain speech was, as you outline at the start of your article, about trying to bring people together, to find ways to live with more compassion and generosity of spirit towards one another; it was not in any way intended to be politicising, but in fact quite the opposite. I’m glad the production inspired strong feelings; I just wanted to add some transparency to those points. Thanks!

    Comment by Kirsten Cairns — February 21, 2024 at 6:59 pm

  2. OK. I saw Saturday’s performance which had no beforehand talk. Fortunate or Unfortunate that I missed what sounds like it was maybe a tediously contrived current events screed described as a lecture. N— was not like an Assyrian ruler; no calculated Schecklichkeit in him–I even remembered reading somewhere that after the captivity some Jews stayed in Babylon. Britten can blow hot or cold; sometimes I like him (Midsummer’s Night Dream) and sometimes he drives me up a wall (the “donkey” bit in Lessons & Carols “Day-oh Graaa-zi-aawss hee-HAW hee-HAW hee-HAW etc.”). By the end I had marked “Fiery Furnace” as Britten I don’t need to hear ever again. Noisy as in a boiler factory without purpose that’s not making any boilers. No, it’s NOT the fault of Enigma Opera–it’s the challenge Britten put to them–can’t be helped. Yes, a challenge! Now I’ll go read up on Curlew River and that other one and see if I should chase after them! The night before I had seen the Chevalier de St. George’s “The Anonymous Lover” which was delightful both in the music and the performance. A worthy antidote to the Juvenile Mozart that is usually thrown at us. AND…for once the BLO didn’t badly warp things as they usually do which makes one want to scream READ THE LIBRETTO! at them. I solved that by stopping going and giving them any money! But The Anonymous Lover was GOOD! Only problem was in the program’s having that annoying cryptic block that you’re supposed to use your “Smartphone” to read by somehow pointed it at that “block”. Afterwards I went home and read up on-line on the work from various sources because I know how to do THAT. BLO’s programs are getting as bad as the old PLAYBILLS which were totally useless enough to make one cease going to the theater!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 21, 2024 at 7:44 pm

  3. Nathan your comments are spot on! I like that you call out the creeping musical dumbing down mediocrity AND sophomoric wannabe Progressive twaddle in which today’s Fine Arts ” sh t show” is stuck. Not since Nazi Germany has the so-called “arts community” been so enamored with second and third-rate fare just to back up sone political polemic. ( Werner Egk’s “more representative” rewrite of Midsummer Night’s Dream [ or Per Gynt, was it?], Anyone? )

    You obviously arent afraid to prod and poke our Sacred Cows. To paraphrase Bernard Shaw, not all of Britten is as good as it sounds . And Fiery Furnace certainly doesnt pass the Fire Code. You will conclude the same about Curlew , I predict. I know that Jessie Montgomery, a rare example of true composing talent today, is devoted to Britten and you can certainly hear him in her and it works. The problem is that apart from his being a profoundly loathsome individual, which dampens my enthusiasm same as I have mixed feelings about Hans Pfitzner, NC Wyeth , et al, he was inexcusably uneven for having shown so much talent in his young days. He spread himself way too thin with all of his commissions, hired works, bouncing around to this and that , and trying to be an okay pianist for money, all at the same time. Keeping it in the 20 th century UK for comparison, a greater talent like Walton carried out all that ” activity” better. Yeah Britten outsells Walton 4-1 right now but part of that probably isnt on the merits.

    As for Mozart juvenilia , I smiled reading your comment because I remember shipping a box of cd’s to my late Mother from my Dad’s collection of 1,000s after his passing, and included the Vienna Symphony Bastien/Bastienne on Philips and wrapped it so that she couldn’t see what it was.Both parents were crazy about Mozart ; made a pilgrimage to the Tyl Theater et al, once – and I thought that it would be a fun ” Stump the Band ” thing. But she phoned after ahe played it and sniffed, “Hmmmn sounded like Mozart when he was a little boy”. 🤣

    She didnt even mistake it for ” Chevalier” !

    Thank you again for your fine writing. Hope to meet someday; maybe there will be a concert afternoon sometime of ” Florence Rice : The Better-Written Parts”. Tee hee.

    Best from Detroit –

    Comment by G M Palmer — February 27, 2024 at 5:34 am

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