The Medium and The Wanton Sublime
Arcola Studio 2
And so to the culmination of the contemporary opera section of the Grimeborn Festival, a double-bill in the form of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Medium and The Wanton Sublime, a new work by Tarik O’Regan, to a libretto by Anna Rabinowitz. Robert Shaw directed both operas and the Orpheus Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Griffiths accompanied the second half. The house was sold-out in anticipation of an evening of musicianship of high quality – an expectation that was by-and-large fulfilled.
Maxwell Davies wrote both words and music for this unaccompanied fifty-minute monologue back in 1981, and it stands as one of his most durable stage works. It is not performed very often, presumably because of the major demands it makes on the singer/performer, but it is hard to imagine it receiving a better rendition than the one offered here by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn.
As we entered Studio 2 the singer is already in place and in role, sitting ramrod straight wearing a neat lace bodice and draped in a shawl, the kind of quaint Gypsy-Victorian style of costume affected by medium and palmists. There is no set beyond a raised white walkway placed at a diagonal in the performance space. We assume that we are in a fairground tent as the medium awaits her customers.
That is indeed how the show begins, with the singer homing in on three members of the audience to have their palms read. But it soon becomes clear she is no ordinary medium. Alongside the conventional banalities of her trade comes very uncomplimentary back-chat about the customers.. are we actually in a fairground at all? Or are we rather in a world of her own imaginings instead? Gradually the medium reaches back into what is clearly a very troubled past and delivers long sequences of melismatic singing describing both religious and sexual ecstacy. She appears to be channeling the voices of her ‘somnambulistic imagination.’ At different points these included a changeling child, a dog, a maid, a rape victim and a novice nun, and other characters. The voice has to cover a huge range of notes and also of style, from straight-forward singing to sung-speech. These sections are extraordinarily demanding both vocally and physically. At points Chinn was writhing on the floor just a few feet from my shoes and yet still producing absolutely precisely pitched tone. It was hugely impressive yet also uncomfortable and disturbing, as was doubtless intended.
Themes of madness and damnation and transgression and the pathways between them are central to this composer, and this work is perhaps best seen alongside Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), his study of the disintegration of George III’s sanity. It is not a work that one would want to hear often but it made a deep impression on the audience and it was no surprise given the visible stress of performance that the singer left in the final blackout without taking a bow in order to prepared herself for her next solo role after the interval. By any standards this was a terrific five-star performance, with crystalline diction and comic flair as well as tragic pathos.
If things were less satisfactory during the second piece this was in no way the fault of Chinn who gave us another peerless performance. The Wanton Sublime calls for a largish chamber group of strings, flute, guitars and percussion, and sadly, seated as I was behind the amplified guitars, little of the complex text was audible to me in the confined space of Studio Two.
O’Regan is perhaps best known for his opera on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The hallmarks of his style were very much in evidence in this new work in what was its European premiere. His writing is much influenced by Renaissance polyphony, and the vocal line is perhaps best seen as one line among the many woven together with increasing rhythmic complexity in the ensemble. Certainly as I could not hear the words that is how I had to regard it. Simply as an aural experience it presented moments of great cumulative tonal beauty that were something of an antidote to the uncompromising nature of the first half.
In the course of the work Chinn, playing the Virgin Mary, protests against the roles she is required to play by God. Her vocal line is intercalated with her own recorded voice singing a range of sacred texts. She progresses along the white walkway, disrobing from a smart office suit to her underwear and then gradually reassuming a blue cocktail dress and jewellery.. the traditional colour scheme for the Virgin Mary, but not indicating a meek acquiescence as the handmaiden of the Lord. It is a shame we did not have a handout with the text (as we did earlier in the festival for Pierrot Lunaire), and then it would be possible to say more about the libretto and its relationship to the music.
There were plenty of thematic resemblances between these two pieces which made a pairing between them on the face of it quite sensible; but these were rendered moot by the practical difficulties attendant upon placing such a large-scale piece in a tiny space. Matching double-bills is notoriously difficult for plays and opera and in this case it would have surely been better to relocate this one to the larger Arcola space instead on the nights when the main show was not running.
I have a little space remaining for commentary on the broader themes of the contemporary offerings at Grimeborn this year. These have shown that the spikiness or apparent inaccessibility of some of the music is no barrier to a fine operatic evening if other creative values are fully in place and some care has gone into the broader needs of the audience. If the drama and characterisation are lucid then higher barriers elsewhere will be accepted. This was demonstrated to best advantage in the opening double-bill Clown of Clowns which offered a really deep meditation on the tragic and comic possibilities of the pierrot, clown and circus traditions which was demanding in the best sense and great fun to boot.
It is very much to be hoped that there will be plenty of new operas on show in next year’s festival. The audiences have really turned out for these works which is very heartening to see, as is the opportunity for feedback and commentary afterwards, which I hope will continue.