This double bill, which is part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival, is an interesting exploration of faith, the supernatural and revelation. Both pieces are heavy with biblical references and require the singer’s absolute concentration and commitment.
Fortunately, this task is given to the wonderful mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, who is, for me at least, the highlight of the evening. She was critically acclaimed as the lead in the Wooster Group’s La Didone, proving that she is no stranger to unusual pieces. She moves comfortably on a single white platform, emanating theatricality both physically and vocally. She carries the first piece all by herself, unaccompanied on an almost empty stage. She interacts with us naturally and with ease; her voice is able to discomfort us, frighten us, and make us laugh at the same time. Her range of colours is fascinating; her ability to switch between characters and emotions instantly shows how strong, beautiful and well-trained her voice is.
Unfortunately no amount of absurd characters, impeccable singing and frantic moving around could make the 50 minutes long Medium feel shorter; Peter Maxwell Davies’ music and libretto is so absurd and difficult to follow that towards the end I couldn’t help but tune out.
For The Wanton Sublime, Chinn is joined by the Orpheus Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Griffiths. Together they create an atmospheric experience revolving around the Virgin Mary and her road to accepting the path that was chosen for her by God. The blocking is much more simple this time; Chinn walks from A to B, changing her clothes, her makeup, thus visualizing the steps of transformation and acceptance. Singing with the chamber ensemble that includes an electronic guitar, and also joining herself in a duet, Chinn and the Orpheus Sinfonia bring Tarik O’Regan’s music alive.
Sadly, all instruments are arranged around Chinn, which makes this second piece feel almost like a private party; it definitely is missing the open interaction with the audience that allowed such a strong connection in The Medium. At some points the instruments fill the small studio to such extent that the words of Anna Rabinowitz’s libretto are fully lost, which is a shame, because this piece is much clearer and engaging on a verbal level than the first one.
It is an evening of strange sounds, mysterious narrative and abstract religious themes. For those who enjoy contemporary opera, it will be a treat.
The Medium/The Wanton Sublime is playing at the Arcola until 29 August. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Robert Workman.