|And London Burned © Chris Christodoulou|
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Oct 28 2016
Thought-provoking ideas, but opera on the Great Fire of London fails to capitalise on a tricky performance space
Matt Rogers' new opera And London Burned, with libretto by Sally O'Reilly, was presented at Temple Church (28 October 2016) directed by Sinead O’Neill, conductor Christopher Stark with Raphaela Papadakis, Gwilym Bowen, Alessandro Fisher, Aoife O’Sullivan and Andrew Rupp. In one of the many essays in the programme booklet for this event, Donald Cryan, Treasurer of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple from whom this work was commissioned, asserted that events of the Great Fire of London should be commemorated as an opera, rather than a play or oratorio.
Strange, then, that this was so unsatisfying as an "opera". It was designed for Temple Church with its rows of pews facing inwards that provide a long, narrow performing area and impossible acoustic for comprehension of the text. All the singers seemed to do was run from one end of the space to the other, wondering which way to face. There were probably a dozen people in the audience who didn’t have to crane around pillars to see what was going on.
Matt Rogers' score used seven instrumentalists creatively and evocatively: two clarinets, two horns and two cellos provided spectacular effects of chaos and confusion.
The star of the show was undoubtedly the Temple Church organ, rumbling ominously at sub-sonic frequencies that were barely audible but made the whole place – and audience – shake. Conductor Chris Stark did a sterling job of holding everything together, including the singers as they gamely careered around the place using generic opera-school gestures that didn’t help with comprehensibility.
But what of the story? This piece was written to mark 350 years since the Great Fire of London which destroyed 7/8 of the City of London and was stopped yards from the roof of Temple Church. Members of the Inner Temple played roles in stopping the fire and also in resolving some of the boundary and tenancy disputes that arose as a result. This was also 75 years since the Blitz which destroyed the roof that had been spared by the Great Fire. This was a story about blame, superstition, and about the incompetence of the people in charge. The characters were archetypes of Londoners, including London herself, a contemporary figure commenting from today’s perspective. The Law Student places the action in the Inns of Court and Dryden provides the backdrop of contemporary thought and the Duke of York, having counter-intuitively ordered a building to be blown up with gunpowder to create a firebreak, goes on to deliver the Royal Decree for the vision of the future city, more efficient, more open, cleaner.
The final few moments of the piece were given over to a magnificent Organ Voluntary from Matthew Locke, written in 1673 and giving us a vision of a more ordered society after the apocalyptic scenes of seven years earlier.
All very worthwhile and thought-provoking material, but I am afraid it lost out in the competition for our attention, thanks to a production that didn’t make the best use of a difficult space, and that in spite of being a site-specific concept. I was grateful for the chance to hear the marvellous organ – but really only made sense of the show after the event by reading the programme essays.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford
And London Burned A new opera about the Great Fire of London.
Temple Church, 28th October 2016
Music by Matt Rogers
Libretto by Sally O’Reilly
Director: Sinead O’ Neill
Music Director: Christopher Stark
Designer: Kitty Callister
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