THE WANTON SUBLIME AND THE MEDIUM – Arcola Theatre, London.
Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, the double-bill of Peter Maxwell Davies’s a cappella one-act opera The Medium, and Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime is adventurous and artistic. Both operas explore the way a woman’s identity is bent, shaped, and suppressed by a multitude of internal and external forces. The protagonist of The Medium struggles to reconcile the private joy she takes in her own individuality with the public admonishment her eccentricity receives. In The Wanton Sublime the Virgin Mary tries to cope as her own identity is surpassed by that of a religious icon. These themes are challenging, and the two operas are formidable. At times it is hard for the audience to connect, and while both operas reward close attention, the effort required does make each a little less enjoyable.
At the centre of both operas is a strong female character, whose resilience and self-respect shines through in spite of the challenges thrown at her and the oppressive forces working against her. The underlying strength of the Victorian medium in The Medium is visible even while she is possessed by a host of weird characters – a maid, a devil, a child, a dog. Skilled soprano singer Hai-Ting Chinn does well to portray the medium’s inner strength, which helps the audience sympathise with her as she vainly tries to hold on to her identity. Maxwell Davies pairs the medium’s fractured personality with a diverse mix of vocal styles, including a dark, demonic-sounding Sprechgesang (something half-way between speaking and singing). The overall effect is disturbing, but nevertheless impressive. Chinn performs this vocal contortion with fearlessness and energy, making The Medium quite thrilling to watch. However, the libretto is complicated and the narrative is confusing, and with the complex musical composition already demanding close attention, it can be difficult to connect with the medium’s story.
The Wanton Sublime, which sees its European premiere at the Arcola, is also a disconcerting experience. The libretto, written by Anne Rabinowitz, is based on Rabonowitz’s anthology of poems exploring the conflict between the Virgin Mary’s mythological and human status. With The Medium just before it, the seemingly pagan and primitive aspects of the Virgin Mary’s story are emphasised. This heightens the frustrating tragedy of Mary’s story: she will be remembered forever and idolised, but not for anything that she really is. Director Robert Shaw has Chinn perform as she changes out of business attire and into a cocktail dress. Perhaps a symbol of Mary’s transition from a true agent in control of her own destiny, to an object – an object of worship, sure, but an object nonetheless. Mary makes peace with her situation by the end, happily singing out ‘light cannot be explained’ after a beautiful segment where Chinn harmonises with a recording of her own voice.
O’Regan’s music is interesting and unusual. But the Arcola’s small studio space unfortunately doesn’t provide the best acoustics, and with the chamber orchestra surrounding Chinn, rather than being behind her which might have worked better, Chinn’s lovely voice is occasionally overpowered by the orchestra.
The Medium and The Wanton Sublime are two rich, interesting and creative operas, but they aren’t for the fainthearted, and might be hard-going for the uninitiated.
– – – – – – – – – –
By Andrea White
25th – 29th August 2015
Arcola Theatre, London, E8 3DL.