Cen­tral City’s strange “Fur­nace” packs punch

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Kel­ley Dean Hansen

In 2015, af­ter ex­per­i­ments with sea­son-clos­ing mu­si­cal the­ater events in Den­ver, Cen­tral City Opera went in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion with its late-sea­son shows and de­cided to do trav­el­ing one-act operas. These pro­duc­tions were al­ways staged in one of the “al­ter­na­tive” venues around the com­pany’s home opera house, and then they were taken on tour along the Front Range.

It turned out that the pro­duc­tions in the Cen­tral City venues were so sin­gu­lar an ex­pe­ri­ence that the com­pany de­cided to keep them there this year and aban­don the tour.

The first one-act pro­duc­tion, English com­poser Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s 1966 church para­ble “The Burn­ing Fiery Fur­nace,” opened Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon at the Martin Foundry Re­hearsal Hall in Cen­tral City. The sec­ond per­for­mance was Thurs­day evening, and a third fol­lows at noon next Wed­nes­day.

The pro­duc­tion, like the score it­self, is strange. The venue is un­usual by any stan­dard. The floor is flat,

there is no stage to speak of and the per­form­ers are in in­ti­mate prox­im­ity to the au­di­ence. The orches­tra — “Fur­nace” was orig­i­nally writ­ten by Brit­ten for a small cham­ber group, which CCO faith­fully fol­lows — is house right, again, vir­tu­ally on top of the au­di­ence. It is a tes­ta­ment to di­rec­tor Ken Cazan’s ge­nius that he was able to adapt the work to this space and make it an in­te­gral part of his vi­sion.

Brit­ten’s mu­si­cal lan­guage in 1966 was com­plex and ad­vanced. While the show’s bib­li­cal story is a time­less one — three young Jewish men in the ser­vice of the Baby­lo­nian King Ne­buchad­nez­zar refuse to wor­ship his golden god and are cast into the fur­nace, where they are mirac­u­lously un­harmed and sup­ported by an an­gel — Brit­ten’s mu­sic lends it an oth­er­worldly qual­ity.

Some­times the mu­sic is ex­tremely harsh, as in the al­most or­gias­tic cho­rus of the Baby­lo­ni­ans wor­ship­ing their god Mero­dak. Later, it is ethe­real as the an­gel ap­pears in the flames. But as the 70-minute work approaches its con­clu­sion, the emo­tional im­pact is so great that it is hard to keep one’s eyes dry. Whether one is a be­liever or not, Cazan’s imag­i­na­tive stag­ing com­bined with Brit­ten’s mu­sic makes the mes­sage uni­ver­sal. The over­all ef­fect was rem­i­nis­cent of his 2015 pro­duc­tion of an­other Brit­ten church para­ble, “The Prodi­gal Son.”

Cazan keeps most of the Baby­lo­nian ac­tion at the front, while the bru­tal beat­ings of the young men, the sim­ply but ef­fec­tively ren­dered flames of fur­nace and the ap­pear­ance of the an­gel all take place in the aisle sep­a­rat­ing the crowd seated on por­ta­ble chairs — a most im­pres­sive ef­fect.

The most in­cred­i­ble as­pect of CCO’s one-act pro­duc­tions is that the casts are as­sem­bled from the com­pany’s highly-re­garded Artists Train­ing Pro­gram. These young per­form­ers never fail to pro­duce pro­fes­sional-level per­for­mances. In the case of “Fur­nace,” the mostly-male cho­rus of Baby­lo­ni­ans re­ally stands out in the afore­men­tioned praise of Mero­dak, where the tenors scream out high notes and the dis­so­nant har­monies are ab­so­lutely chilling. Through­out, the cho­rus is the lifeblood of the ac­tion.

Tenor Bille Bru­ley — an alum­nus of the Young Artists Pro­gram who re­turns as a de­vel­op­ing artist — shows that he is well on the way to a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional ca­reer in his grip­ping per­for­mance as Ne­buchad­nez­zar. In Cathe zan’s mod­ernistic stag­ing of the story — where the Baby­lo­ni­ans carry cell phones and iPads and wear mod­ern suits — it was prob­a­bly pre­dictable that the king would be pre­sented as a Trump-like fig­ure. Bru­ley’s en­trance was one of sev­eral bits of com­edy early in the pro­ceed­ings. Nonethe­less, by the end of the opera, Bru­ley man­ages to im­bue the king with real hu­man­ity af­ter he wit­nesses the mir­a­cle. His voice is ra­di­ant, his enun­ci­a­tion im­pec­ca­ble. Ev­ery word he sings is eas­ily un­der­stood and ev­ery note is pre­cise in pitch.

As the vil­lain­ous As­trologer (and also the head priest who in­tro­duces the story in the pro­logue), bari­tone Zhiguang Hong is a men­ac­ing pres­ence who sings with a thun­der­ous voice. Bari­tone Dean Mur­phy is a won­der­fully syco­phan­tic Her­ald (or in this ver­sion, a press sec­re­tary).

And the three Is­raelites — known most com­monly by their Baby­lo­nian names of Shadrach, Meschach and Abed­nego — are por­trayed with ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity by tenor Hum­berto Bor­boa, bari­tone Tim Mur­ray and bass-bari­tone Stephen Clark. Their three-part har­monies al­ways pull strongly at the heart, whether they are pray­ing or re­spect­fully re­fus­ing to eat Ne­buchad­nez­zar’s food. And their English dic­tion is al­ways clearly un­der­stood. Their tra­di­tional Jewish cos­tumes con­trast ef­fec­tively with the bright col­ors worn by the Baby­lo­ni­ans. In fact, cos­tumer Sta­cie Logue de­serves a spe­cial men­tion for her beau­ti­ful work in this pro­duc­tion.

Women are a min­i­mal pres­ence in the opera, but Cazan makes the most of what he has. Louise Ro­gan’s voice soars as it should when she ap­pears as the an­gel above the hymn sung by the young men in the fur­nace. Marlen Nah­has and Quinn Mid­dle­man pro­vide more com­edy as a pair of gen­der-am­bigu­ous Baby­lo­nian en­ter­tain­ers. There are also two iden­ti­cally-dressed women who seem to act as both stage man­agers and ser­vants to the king. Cazan’s mes­sage with them is some­what dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher.

Fi­nally, con­duc­tor Christo­pher Zem­li­auskas and his small en­sem­ble de­serve the high­est praise for their fo­cus and deep un­der­stand­ing of the de­mand­ing score. Ex­posed as they are, the play­ers never lose their con­cen­tra­tion on the in­tri­cate but trans­par­ent nu­ances of Brit­ten’s or­ches­tra­tion.

Amanda Tip­ton , Cen­tral City Opera

Louise Ro­gan (An­gel), cen­ter, with Tim Mur­ray (Ana­nias), left, and Hum­berto Bor­boa (Misael) per­form in Cen­tral City Opera’s “The Burn­ing Fiery Fur­nace.”

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