Edward Lambert’s The Burning Question proves a real company affair from The Music Troupe

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edward Lambert, The Burning Question: The Music Troupe, Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop (piano duet). King’s Head Theatre, London, 18.2.2023. (MB)

The Music Troupe’s The Burning Question © Tom Trevatt

Designs – Tabita Benton-Evans
Direction, Movement – Jenny Weston

Arianna – Louise Fuller
The Pope – Arlene Belli
Ignacio – Harry Grigg
San Pietro – Samuel Lom
Heavenly Voices – Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli, Peter Martin, Samuel Lom

Two operas in one day: it happens (for a select, perhaps insane, few of us) from time to time, but one probably wants them to be quite contrasted, at least unless they are intended to be performed together. In that sense, Edward Lambert’s new chamber opera, his seventeenth, offered a nice amuse-bouche – and more than that, but not too much – to the first night of English National Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold, a shortish bus-ride away from Islington’s King’s Head Theatre.

Inspired by a 2019 incident in which Pope Francis was delayed by twenty-five minutes from meeting the faithful in St Peter’s Square, finding himself stuck in a lift and eventually rescued by firefighters, this ‘comedy in song’, mostly in English but with a little Italian, as well as liturgical Latin, lightly plays with the destination of a soul. It seems that she has done good work in cleaning up the Church, so is destined to do the same for Hell/Hades, though her valet (a demon, Ignacio) worries about how his father there will react to a woman’s leadership. Petrine Security’s visit eventually resolves the matter, as, in recounting a youthful lustful sin, the Pope tells of the child she had had with Persephone, underworld goddess, left in the care of nuns in Woking. That child is Ignacio. Rather than revert to semi-divine status, both he and the angel-chambermaid Arianna resolve to build a life together on earth, the sparks of their love firing the purgatorial fire that will cleanse the Pope and permit her to enter Heaven after all.

To a libretto by Norman Welch and Edward Lambert, which incorporates not only the Latin Requiem Mass but also material by Ambrose Bierce, the opera plays out in what is less a parade of styles — that makes it sound arbitrary — then freely floating, essentially tonal, numbers that evoke a vaudeville spirit, theological-dramatic passage, and benign hauntings from the history of the genre. There are set-pieces, speech, passages of parlando connection, and sound design from, as it were, beyond the beyond, heavenly voices working their recorded yet immediate magic. Much though not all, is underpinned by excellent piano duet work from Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop. Coloratura embellishes, and ultimately sincerity of love wins, winningly expressed by soprano Louise Fuller and Harry Grigg, ably mentored by Arlene Belli’s Pope and Samuel Lom’s St Peter. Simple, yet undeniably powerful choreography and shifts of lighting make important contributions too. This, then, is a real company, thoroughly professional, affair from The Music Troupe, which can and maybe should provoke deeper thoughts, yet which can also certainly be enjoyed as a piece of fun on the surface. As Nietzsche (posthumously) reminded Wagner, not all art need or should be the Stone Guest scene; sometimes, il faut méditeranniser la musique.

Mark Berry

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