Mahagony Opera: The Burning Fiery Furnace

Helen Wallace enjoys a potent production of Britten's parable The Burning Fiery Furnace at the City of London Festival

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Curlew RiverWas that really Roger Vignoles looming out of the shadows, cloak swirling, clattering the cymbals with unalloyed glee? It was just one of many phantasmagoric images in this dream-like production of Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace played in the gathering gloom of Southwark Cathedral late last night.

In fact, the distinguished pianist Vignoles was not only cymbal player but music director of Mahagony Opera’s inspired production by Frederic Wake-Walker, which opened in St Petersburg (a Russian premiere) and has already played to packed audiences in Orford Church as part of the Aldeburgh Festival.

I’ve always felt that The Burning Fiery Furnace was the most potent of the three parables, successfully marrying Medieval mystery with Noh theatre and, here, Balinese dance traditions to create raw drama. Unlike the other three, too, it’s spliced with dark humour which Wake-Walker brings out with great charm.

The opening plain-song procession of hooded monks culminates in the arrival of the Abbot, the giant figure of bass Lukas Jakobski, whose mesmerising presence compels throughout. The vast shadow of his raised hand in the rivets of the arch above was just one happy result of Ben Payne’s sensitive, glowing lighting.

Jakobski rapidly transforms into the menacing astrologer whose snake-like, quivering dance heralds the arrival of tenor James Gilchrist’s haughty Nebuchadnezzar. Wake-Walker’s choreography, derived closely from Balinese dance, animates and articulates the drama with a sensual rightness all-too rare in opera. The chorus’s hand and arm movements give life to the rhythm of their singing, while the angular gyrations of the three boy entertainers are sheer delight (played with winning cheek by Alfie Evans, William Rose and Theo Christie from the Suffolk-based Jubilee Opera).

Britten handled the palette of male and boy voices with alto trombone, horn, viola, harp, organ, flute and percussion with such acute mastery one is continually arrested by sonorities which speak as eloquently as any of the singers. Ensemble was impressively close, given that the Aurora Orchestra players, Vignoles and the singers could barely see each other. Musical treasures spill out: the floating, gamelan-like texture of the story’s beginning, the snarling trombone which drives the dance of death, James Gilchrist’s burnished chromaticism answered by the touching homophony of the three Israelites (Samuel Evans, John McMunn and Rodney Earl Clarke), their moving appeal to God and the piercing perfect fourths of the young angel (Lucas Evans) who delivers them from the furnace.

There are still tickets for tonight and Saturday (5, 6 July) – visit the City of London Festival website – after which you can catch the performance at the Buxton Festival 14, 15 July 

Photo: from Britten Church Parables: Curlew River