The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten
The Transfiguration Boys Choir, Claudia Dumschat, director
The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
March 28, 2014
 

The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as “The Little Church around the corner,” was the venue for a performance of the second of composer Benjamin Britten’s three Parables for Church Performance, the 1966 The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op. 77, on March 28, 2014. This work was preceded by a “curtain raiser,” the composer’s Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63, scored for three-part treble chorus and organ. Anyone expecting a simple euphonious work would have been quite disappointed. The Missa Brevis is a complex and demanding piece, full of polytonality, complicated meters (7/8 in the Gloria), and other twentieth century devices which would have challenged any adult chorus. The Transfiguration Boys Choir was fully up to the task, singing with note-perfect precision and flawless intonation. The unnamed soloists, drawn from the chorus, sang beautifully. The boys were rehearsed and conducted by the choir’s director Claudia Dumschat. Erik Birk was the skillful organist.

The performance of the Transfiguration Boys Choir set a very high bar for the adults performing the Burning Fiery Furnace. I am happy to report that they were all up to the challenge. Repeating a dramatic motif from The Church of the Transfiguration’s 2012 performance of the third Parable, The Prodigal Son (The Prodigal Son: NY Concert Review, March 9, 2012), the opening of The Burning Fiery Furnace featured chanting monks dressed in robes and cowls, proceeding down the center aisle. When they reached the front of the church, the monks’ Abbot addressed the audience/congregation. The soloist was bass-baritone Peter Ludwig, who with warm and persuasive singing drew us all into the drama and mystery which was to follow. The monks then took off their robes, revealing the costumes of the characters they were to play. Mr. Ludwig became the work’s villain, his dual roles allowing him to show his skills as a wonderful singing actor.

All of the vocal soloists were fine singing actors: Tenor Daniel Neer as Nebuchadnezzar; Nicolas Connolly as The Herald and Leader of the Courtiers; Bill Cross, Christopher Preston Thompson and David Baldwin as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three men who would be put in the fiery furnace. Masters Jeffrey Kishinevsky and Charles Rosario, members of The Transfiguration Boys Choir, stole the show with their jolly portrayal of the Boy Entertainers. Another high point was the beautiful singing of boy soprano Matthew Griffin as the Angel who protects the three men in the fiery furnace. Also memorable was the ethereal singing of the Angel Chorus made up of Alexis Cordero, Jeffrey Kishinevsky, Charles Rosario and Kennin Susana, and to be complete, mention must be made of the strong contribution made by the Chorus of Courtiers.

I described The Church of the Transfiguration’s March 9, 2012 production of The Prodigal Son as “a performance that succeeded in all aspects.” The same can be said of tonight’s production of The Burning Fiery Furnace. Praise again must go to Music Director Claudia Dumschat who led the fine chamber orchestra and performed the organ part. Under her leadership, the musical preparation and execution were exemplary. Mention should also be made of the evocative costumes by Costume Designer Terri Bush. The dramatic action, which was the responsibility of Dramaturg/Stage Manager Betty Howe and Stage Director Richard Olson was persuasive and melded seamlessly with the singing. All in all, it was another wonderful performance.


Britten’s “The Prodigal Son” in Review

Claudia Dumschat, Music Director
Richard Olson, Stage Director
David Neer, Peter Ludwig, Reid Pierre Delahunt
Christopher Preston Thompson, solo voices
Betty Howe, Dramaturg/Stage Manager
The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
March 9, 2012

Daniel Neer as The Tempter (left) with Christopher Preston Thompson as The Younger (Prodigal) Son.

Composed in 1967/68, Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera “The Prodigal Son” is subtitled “A Parable for Church Performance.” And The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as “The Little Church Around the Corner,” proved to be a perfect venue in which to hear this superlative performance. With its all-male cast and its use of masks and stylized movement, the work shows the influence of Japanese Nō drama. In addition, the use of small drums, bells and gong all conjure up the sound of the music of the Far East.

The work began with the sound of chant far in the distance, a foolproof way of setting the mood for chamber opera performed in a church. The chanters, hooded monks, soon processed down the center aisle and assembled in the sanctuary. After the four main characters (The Father, The Elder Son, The Younger Son, The Tempter/Abbot) removed their monk’s habits and put on their costumes, the drama began to the accompaniment of the organ and chamber orchestra.

What followed was a performance that succeeded in all aspects. The four soloists were superb, each singing with dramatic intensity, great sound and crystal-clear diction. As the Tempter, David Neer had the meatiest part and skillfully expressed the character’s unctuous villainy. Peter Ludwig’s portrayal of The Father expertly balanced self-satisfied pomposity and deep paternal love. And as the two sons, Reid Pierre Delahunt and Christopher Preston Thompson clearly contrasted the two young men’s world view. Each soloist was a fine singing-actor.

Some of the men performing the roles of monks, servants, parasites and beggars, and all of the boys portraying “distant voices” were members of the church’s Choir of Men and Boys. They all sang with great tone and strong sense of ensemble. Highest praise must go to Music Director Claudia Dumschat who lead the fine chamber orchestra and performed the all-pervasive organ part. Under her leadership, the musical preparation and execution were exemplary. Mention should also be made of the simple but quite evocative costumes by Costume Designer Terri Bush. The dramatic action, responsibility of Dramaturg/Stage Manager Betty Howe and Stage Director Richard Olson, was persuasive and melded seamlessly with the singing. All in all, a wonderful performance.


“Dance of the Stones” in Review

“Dance of the Stones” in Review
A Chamber Opera by Brian Schober
Libretto by Richard Olson
Theatre80, New York, NY
November 6, 2010

 

Dance of the Stones. Photo Credit : Auguste Olson


 

A large audience was in attendance for the premiere weekend of Brian Schober’s new chamber opera “Dance of the Stones,” a work inspired by Japanese Noh drama, but involving modern, everyday characters searching for meaning in life. Delving into universal themes of mind and body, teacher and student, the limitations of words, love, and aging, the opera’s scope seems to reach in inverse proportion to the size of the cast (four characters and a small chorus). The uncluttered quality of cast and staging combined with an evocative musical score to create illusions of space and time that far exceeded the intimate venue.

Central to the story, in a libretto by Richard Olson, is the relationship between a frustrated philosophy professor, Thom (sung by bass-baritone Peter Ludwig), and a young infatuated student Abby (sung by soprano Sara Paar). They travel towards enlightenment and towards Thom’s own revered teacher Tara (sung by contralto Christina Ascher), aided by a guide named Go (tenor Kenneth Harmon). Appropriately subtitled “A Journey beyond Words,” much of the opera’s emotional story is conveyed through dance, pantomime, and choral interludes that draw upon a rich range of what is described as “multi-textured music of shifting modalities.” There are indeed words as well, sung very conversationally by the four main characters (and peppered humorously with some slang), but the instrumental and choral music, lighting, and staging seem best to express the heart of the characters, the subtext of their lines, and their journeys toward truth. A chorus with handbells plus an ensemble of violin, cello, flutes, piccolo, clarinet, piano, synthesizer, harp and percussion convey alternately a sense of frustration, wonder, anxiety, love, calm, and sleep.

Mr. Schober, an American composer and organist who studied in France with Olivier Messiaen (as well as in the US), seems to have some of Messiaen’s mark on his musical style, although his wide-ranging textures and timbres are so sensitively connected to his opera’s drama and libretto that what emerges is something altogether unique.

The composition is fascinating all by itself, though non-musicians would enjoy the production for its theatrical values alone, including skillful choreography (Lynn Neumann) and lighting (Stephen Petrilli). All was held together seamlessly by the skillful conducting of Claudia Dumschat. In the performance I heard, the singing and acting were commendable, although occasionally some recitative parts were a tad stilted. The initially fusty Thom metamorphosed wonderfully as the role progressed, and some humorous moments stole the show for the spunky Abby, also offering much-needed comic relief from the rather ambitious subject matter. I never thought I would hear the word “dude” sung in a classical opera setting, but there is a first for everything!

Special mention should be made also of the chorus’s soprano soloist, Lesley Zlabinger, who had some of the most beautifully lyrical parts, and of considerable difficulty. Considering the obvious difficulty in all of the vocal parts (and in coordination with the ensemble parts), it was a remarkable and impressive premiere. All involved are to be congratulated.

One can easily imagine this chamber opera receiving repeat performances or touring the university circuit (despite some derogatory references in the text to “ivory towers”). Its small cast and simple staging should make it quite mobile, and college audiences should find it provocative. There may also be something of a renewed interest in Noh-inspired opera, as a new production of one by Alexander Goehr was just presented in London. There are also notable early examples by Benjamin Britten, in his “Curlew River,” “The Fiery Burning Furnace,” and “The Prodigal Son,” but there is certainly room for more.