Lammermuir Festival

The Burning Fiery Furnace

St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington

Keith Bruce, five stars

EMBRACING opera with admirable commitment this year, East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival invited Scottish Opera to produce a Benjamin Britten rarity and commissioned Matthew Rooke to write an excellent new work that involved a sizeable chunk of the population of Dunbar.

The Burning Fiery Furnace is one of Britten’s three church parables, based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Old Testament book of Daniel, in which the faithful Israelites reject the bling of the false god, survive the punishment of the title, and convert King Nebuchadnezzar. It is an all-male tale, with tenor William Morgan in especially fine voice of the trio, Douglas Nairne leading the chorus as The Herald, young Tom Marland, who was last seen in Bernstein’s MASS with the RSNO, the best among the boys’ voices, and Ben Johnson commanding as the King.

With the entire company, including an instrumental octet directed from the chamber organ by Derek Clark, processing in and out - and during - the performance, director Jenny Ogilvie presented the whole score as if it was part of some lost liturgy. While this eschewed the stylised Noh theatre-derived movement of the original 1960s production, the sequence of ritualistic scenes and tableaux suited the work perfectly. Although some of this was a tall order for the instrumentalists, its effect was to focus attention very precisely on details of the score, which is very varied, full of colour, and more melodious than it at first seems. Anyone who saw Scottish Opera’s seasons of new short operas, Five:15, would recognise the three-level set, which sat snugly between nave and choir in the kirk and suited Ogilvie’s conception perfectly.

Rooke’s An Cadal Trom, in Dunbar Parish Church the following afternoon, involved singers, dancers and instrumentalists young and old from the community, the latter working alongside the musicians of Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland under the baton of Sian Edwards, and the entire 123-strong company directed by Jack Furness.

Rooke’s clever episodic score used stories of the town’s past and referenced the styles of other opera composers in an hour long life-lesson about how we are all the product of our history, community and environment. The non-professionals were terrific, and some were very young indeed, and huge plaudits go to baritone Andrew McTaggart and mezzo Penelope Cousland for their consummate mastery of very demanding lead roles.