Edward Lambert’s new opera The Burning Question reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Edward Lambert: The Burning Question – Peter Martin, Rosalind Dobson – The Music Troupe at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Edward Lambert: The Burning Question; Peter Martin, Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli, Samuel Lom, Tabitha Benton-Evans, Susan Norman, Elspeth Wilkes, The Music Troupe; Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival at the Cockpit
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 1 August 2022

The Burning Question, composer Edward Lambert’s sixteenth chamber opera, and his seventh with his group The Music Troupe, attempts to answer the “burning question” of the title: what happens when the lift carrying the Pope gets stuck

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. At Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival, in the intimate surrounding of a sold-out Cockpit Theatre, just off Edgware Road, Lambert’s work took an archly witty, often hilarious, libretto by frequent collaborator Norman Welch (Apollo’s Mission, 2019) and combined it with a dash of Italian opera buffa and a swirl of mysterious American poet Ambrose Bierce’s satirical translation of the Latin requiem mass text to create a complex, layered story about love, loss, self sacrifice and sin. Lambert’s approachable, but contemporary musical style revealed his huge experience in writing for voices over his long career, varying from parlando banter and expressive bel canto arias, through polyphonic show-stoppers, to tightly harmonic four-part chorales. And despite a sprinkling of Italian phrases mixed with the English text, the entire libretto was transparently audible and easy to follow throughout – something that can’t always be said for contemporary opera.
The tenor Peter Martin in the role of Ignacio gave a stand out performance as the Pope’s demonic valet, relishing his role as master-of-ceremonies, while his opposite number in this spiritual conflict was played with pure, celestial innocence and joy by Rosalind Dobson as Arianna, the Pope’s maid (an undercover angel with a heavenly voice to match). The Pope herself was played by international prize-winning Italian mezzo Arlene Belli in splendid form, going from decrepit oldster to spritely powerhouse in a dramatic mid-scene transformation. The up-and-coming young bass-baritone Samuel Lom completed the quartet as the enigmatic Caretaker/St Peter, who provided the necessary gravitas, and a sly poke at the perils of bureaucracy, when called upon to arbitrate the dispute over the Pope’s soul. The four young vocalists were accompanied by the skillful and nimble piano duet of Susan Norman and Elspeth Wilkes, along with the very effective device of using the singers’ own pre-recorded voices forming an unseen, but beautiful heavenly choir.

Edward Lambert: The Burning Question - Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli - The Music Troupe at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: The Burning Question – Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli – The Music Troupe at Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Although based on the true incident of Pope Francis getting stuck in the Vatican lift for 25 minutes in 2019, the Dantesque dilemma of the destination of the soul might seem a strange subject for a comic opera, but this team demonstrated real cohesion and commitment to the choreography of Jenny Weston and the inspired direction of Tabitha Benton-Evans to deliver a strangely compelling vision, with a hopeful, whimsical ending. This marvelous evening’s entertainment was a delicious and unexpected cocktail of frothy cappuccino and sparkling prosecco, spiked through with hot peperoncini – an absolute delight from start to finish.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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