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NEBUCHADNEZZAR IN THE CATHEDRAL

In another wedding of cathedral and music drama, the Utah Opera will open the 1995 Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities with its production of Benjamin Britten's "The Burning Fiery Furnace," tonight at 8 in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple.

As for all festival events, admission is free. (For a schedule of Madeleine Festival events, see E4.)This one-act opera is the second in a trilogy of "Church Parables" by Britten. "Curlew River," the first in the series, was performed by Utah Opera to open the Madeleine Festival of 1993, and the company hopes to perform the third, "The Prodigal Son," there next spring.

Production of these works in the cathedral is especially felicitous, since this sort of setting was favored by Britten, who oversaw their premiere productions at Orford Church during Aldeburgh Festivals of the '60s. Since then they have had many productions singly around the world, but Utah Opera's production of all three in a church setting is most unusual.

As one might assume, "The Burning Fiery Furnace" tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar and the three Israelites who defied his edict that all must bow down to the golden image of Merodak. True to their faith, they suffered rather to be cast into a super-heated furnace, where they were protected from harm by a guardian angel. When they left the furnace unscathed, Nebuchadnezzar repudiated his golden idol and paid homage to the god of Israel.

When he visited Japan in 1956, Britten was impressed by the Japanese Noh drama - its simplicity and economy of style, yet its dramatic impact. He found it natural to combine these qualities with aspects of the medieval miracle play - an all-male cast, simple austere staging, limited instrumental accompaniment and a moral story.

Accordingly, characters in the opera will be masked in the Noh tradition, but given striking, colorful costumes of Japanese style, designed by Susan Memmott Allred. Alexander Gelman of the University of Utah theater department, has directed the work, with Tina Misaka of the Repertory Dance Theatre choreographing the stylized movement of Noh drama. Nicholas Cavallaro, Utah Opera's resident lighting designer, will illuminate the scene.

Conducting the singers and members of the Utah Symphony is Utah Opera chorus master and coach Garold Whisler, who comes to Utah after fulfilling a similar assignment for New Orleans Opera.

Leading the cast as King Nebuchanezzar is Douglas Perry, a nationally renowned tenor perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi in Philip Glass' opera "Satyagraha." He made his European debut with the Netherlands Opera in the world premiere of "Satyagraha," and went on to perform it with Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Seattle and San Francisco operas, among many others.

At La Scala he debuted in Leonard Bernstein's "A Quiet Place," also his debut role at Vienna State Opera with Bernstein conducting; this production was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and televised throughout Europe. In October 1992 Perry made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the world premiere of Glass' "The Voyage."

He's frequently at Houston, New York City, Greater Miami, Philadelphia and Tulsa operas, as well as Pittsburgh, Louisville, Santa Fe, St. Louis and Colorado. Indeed, it might be easier to say where Perry hasn't been among American regional operas.

In 20 years of professional singing, the versatile tenor has done everything from classic to romantic to avant garde; nor has Gilbert and Sullivan escaped his attention. Though he could be the hero, he's more often found in the off-beat character roles, such as Pang in "Turandot," Caius in "Falstaff" or Orlovsky in "Fledermaus."

"I enjoy doing interesting, challenging things," said the personable singer. "I love all forms of music - church, temple, chorus, opera, oratorio. I never thought I was above doing any type of music. Why should I be pegged? Why not say, I do a good job at whatever I do?

"So many of my friends have gone to other jobs and professions, but as long as I can make a living I'll stick to singing. Sometimes I go non-stop for five months. Though it's getting harder and harder, with fewer opportunities and more good singers.

"But it's terrific traveling, meeting people, and often the regional companies have casts on a par or better than the big companies."

Perry credits his success to being in the right place at the right time. The Indiana native taught high school in Indianapolis for awhile and coached with former Met soprano Margaret Harshaw, who suggested he go to the apprentice program at Santa Fe Opera. After that, he packed up and moved to New York City.

As for "The Burning Fiery Furnace," he assures that "it's not Noh. We hope it is what Britten wanted, very stylized, unique to him, but more like the medieval, when Biblical dramas were used to enlighten the people. And I believe in English diction, I would rather sacrifice the tone if necessary to make the words clear.

"Nebuchadnezzar has been fun to explore, he goes through a variety of moods, sweet, then furious, terror-stricken and humble. This is a great ensemble piece, with the principals and the seven men who form the chorus."

The three Israelites will be sung by baritone Eugene Perry (no relation) of New York City Opera, tenor George Dyer of Utah and bass-baritone Rod Nelman, who's sung with Pittsburgh Opera, among others. In minor roles and chorus are David Small, Eric Glissmeyer, Dan Christensen, Craig Fredericks, Jefferson Green, Steven McGregor, Joseph I. Onstott and Tipi Pupua. The young attendants are Andrew Grose, Jeffrey C. Perry and Steven Wilkin.