OPERA REVIEW | THE MEDIUM + THE WANTON SUBLIME (GRIMEBORN – ARCOLA THEATRE)
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OPERA REVIEW | THE MEDIUM + THE WANTON SUBLIME (GRIMEBORN – ARCOLA THEATRE)

Downstairs from the main auditorium of the Arcola, in the smaller Studio 2, a double bill of modern operas gave voices to the most sacred and supernatural of forces. Peter Maxwell Davies’ unaccompanied opera The Medium was sung by Californian mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn who proved to be a surprising power source of operatic talent and multiple stage abilities. And for Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime she was joined by the charming Orpheus Sinfonia, which guaranteed a musically rich night.

On entering Gillian Argo’s long white stretch of a stage, Chinn sat on a wooden chair, rolling her eyes and smiling to herself. For 40-50 minutes, she alone performed as The Medium in a Victorian lace dress singing and humming, and even wailing, to the voices of whatever spirit or soul took over her body. The opera conveyed various streams of consciousness interacting with the medium’s clairvoyant mind.

Davies’ 1981 monologue has rarely been revived and Chinn showed all the reasons why. It requires a tenacious performer and Chinn was up for the challenge. Her dynamic and flexible characterisation of every demon, tormented mother or barking dog that channelled her body was remarkable. She politely grabbed audience members’ palms to tell them their fortune, before going into a hysteria, screaming out the weird images engulfing her such as “crab claws” and “spatula fingertips”.

Although the piece appeared comedic at the beginning, it ended rather macabre with the unsettling sight of Chinn having an epileptic fit or reaching a divine climax. Her vocals were so impressive, and just as enchanting as her ability to mould into any character or form. However, that being said, The Medium is a rather long piece that could have been more enjoyable had it been shortened to 10 minutes.

The Wanton Sublime, with Andrew Griffiths conducting the chamber ensemble of the Orpheus Sinfonia, was at another level in musical versatility, tone and emotionality. Composer O’Regan and librettist Anna Rabinowitz have produced a beautifully fragmented opera, loaded with a fascinating score. The Sinfonia’s expertise really shone and with Chinn’s multi-talented voice, I found myself closing my eyes to some sweeping and dazzling passages.

Director Robert Shaw had Chinn undress herself from corporate suit to lingerie and sunglasses, showing various shades of womanhood through intriguing points of direction. These tied in well for an opera that depicts the Virgin Mary protesting to God, questioning why she was chosen to be the idol of the Immaculate Conception. The opera rejects this notion, in exchange for a stronger female figure for the 21st century. In less than 30 minutes Chinn undresses assumptions of the ‘feminine’ for a treatment that bears more relevance to a contemporary audience.

The Orpheus Sinfonia were tightly knitted together, surrounding Chinn on stage yet positioned in such a way that the audience could see every musician simultaneously. Chinn’s voice had been recorded beforehand and audiences could hear these samples echo after she sung, adding a polyphonic element to the opera. For the calibre of the Orpheus Sinfonia, The Wanton Sublime should have been performed in a larger space than Studio 2.

Read more posts by Mary Nguyen here and follow her on Twitter @MaryGNguyen

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