St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington is one of the great Scottish church buildings, and it looks magnificent in the moonlight tonight. It is a great setting for Scottish Opera’s performance of Britten’s church parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace. This is Scottish Opera’s first visit to the Lammermuir Festival, a recognition of the increasing importance of this festival, which recently won an award as the best small festival in Britain. Scottish Opera have turned the interior of St Mary’s into a stage setting, the background for the musicians and singers, and use the long nave (the longest church nave in Scotland) as a very effective procession area for the opening and closing sacred chanting.
The Burning Fiery Furnance was written by Britten after a visit he and Peter Pears (his partner and preferred lead singer) made to Japan. While there, he was very influenced by the Japanese art form of Noh, which is part theatre and part opera. Britten decided to use this form in his church parables, and there is a distinct Japanese influence to the music. The opera is based on the story of of King Nebuchadnezzar, who sentences three Isrealites to death in a furnace, and when they come out unscathed, he is so impressed he converts to worshipping God!
The music is provided by a very small orchestra of eight musicians, conducted by Derek Clark from the chamber organ, yet they convey beautifully the ghostly eastern influenced music, and perfectly accompany the singers. There are six principal singers in this work, backed up by a chorus of men and boys. The opera begins with a solemn procession down the nave, with the chorus singing sacred songs. This leads them onto the stage, and the subsequent drama.
Amongst the soloists, Ben Johnson is outstanding as Nebuchadnezzar. He won the audience prize in Cardiff’s Singer of the World, and since then has been building his reputation in the opera houses of Britain. Tonight, his clear tenor voice rings out in the very good acoustic of St Mary’s. Others who impress are bass-baritone Lancelot Nomira, who is singing Azarias, and David Stout, who is singing both the Astrologer and the Abbot. The other singers are all of a very good standard.
There are two criticisms of the production. Firstly, there are problems with the work itself. It’s not quite an opera in terms of drama and music, and it’s not quite a sacred work—it falls between two stools. It isn’t Britten’s best work either—it certainly never comes near the sublime standards of Peter Grimes or Billy Budd.
Secondly, this production is somewhat confusing as far as the drama itself is concerned. The chorus and the principals appear processing in their everyday clothes, and only later don robes. Indeed, the three Isrealites appear in anoraks as if they have just been walking in the nearby Lammermuir Hills! Perhaps Jenny Ogilvie, the director, is trying a bit of Brechtian alienation to remind us of the everyday relevance of the story, but it unfortunately doesn’t work. It might be a cliché to dress everyone in Biblical robes, but it would be more convincing than the odd bits of gold cloth that are seen flashing around, presumably to signify power.
Nevertheless, even given these criticisms, it still makes for an interesting evening, and apparently this is only the third time this work has been staged in Scotland. It is also very welcome to see Scottish Opera becoming part of the Lammermuir Festival. Now, what about next year staging Lucia De Lammermuir? It is after a local opera! Or perhaps Verdi’s Macbeth set in the ruins of Tantallon Castle? That would be something!