Studio 2, Arcola Theatre
Hai-Ting Chinn (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Griffiths (conductor)
Robert Shaw (director)Gillian Argo (designs)
Tom White (lighting)
What an evening for Hai-Ting Chinn, taking the starring and indeed only role not only in Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Medium but also in Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime, here receiving its first European performances! She must have been on stage for not far short of an hour and a half, singing for most of that time. I was a little surprised to hear her described as a mezzo; to my ears, she sounded much more of a soprano. What was not in doubt, however, was her accomplishment as a singing actress; nor, indeed, her accomplishment as a vocalist, not least in the unaccompanied Medium, written for Jane Manning. Called upon to alternate between Sprechgesang, rapid coloratura, hymn singing, and much else besides, Chinn managed both to remain in control and to convey meaning. A more ‘conventionally’ sung part in O’Regan’s work nevertheless offered plenty of opportunity for development, within its relatively short duration; much was made, capitalising upon Gillian Argo’s necessarily spare yet telling designs, of the conflict between different aspects of Mary’s – yes, the Virgin’s: ‘I am a virgin’ – character.
Davies’s work, if perhaps a little over-extended, presents a welcome continuation, albeit from a female standpoint, of some of the preoccupations of the slightly earlier The Lighthouse. Theology, religious fanaticism, fraudulent representation and self-representation, even some of the downright insanity of the composer’s earlier work: they co-exist, conflict, even fuse in a largely compelling three-quarters of an hour. The voices in the medium’s head whose urgings she feels compelled to act out, almost to give birth to, offer an intriguing ‘period’ lace introduction to the contemporary – New York, I presume – reimagining of Mary as Virgin in an equally uncomprehending world of The Wanton Sublime. Undressing and re-dressing (in what, before its obliteration before over-use and misuse, one might once have called ‘iconic’ blue), more of a sexual being than she is generally given credit for, this Mary has much to intrigue, although Anna Rabinowitz’s libretto perhaps tries a little too hard to be ‘streetwise’. O’Regan’s score, expertly played by the Orpheus Sinfonia (violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute/piccolo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, two on percussion) under Andrew Griffiths, progresses alternately by angular, but not too angular, action passages and frozen, more melismatic passages of reflection. There is thus perhaps something filmic to what we hear as well as to what we see. Recorded voices – Mary’s own – surface too: largely confirming, but perhaps also questioning. Much to ponder, then, from a fascinating evening at the Grimeborn Festival.