Opera review: Grimeborn Festival

by
28 September 2018

Roderic Dunnett catches up with Grimeborn opera

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THIS year’s Glyndebourne Opera Festival revived the five-star production of Handel’s English oratorio Saul (Arts, 16 October 2015). This year’s novelty was Vanessa, set in “a sombre Gothic dreamscape” and recalling Dickens’s Miss Havisham, by the American composer Samuel Barber.

A very different festival brought opera to east London during August. The Arcola Theatre in Dalston is home to the Grimeborn Festival, which, on a segment of the A10 not famed for arts initiatives, has created a run of operatic happenings since the theatre was fashioned out of an old shirt factory in 2000.

The festival was founded in 2007 by the Turkish-born director and entrepreneur Mehmet Ergen, co-founder of the Southwark Playhouse.

The Arcola is an intimate theatre, and yet quite a substantial space, that enables forceful music theatre to be derived from even the grandest of operas: last year’s headliner was Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns.

Grimeborn’s centrepiece this year was the story of Oedipus, as retold by Steven Berkoff in a 1980 play that updates the story to Tufnell Park in north London, and which formed a social commentary on Britain at the time. The music of the opera, Greek, which followed in 1988, is by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The punchy production here, a new version, was by his gifted collaborator Jonathan Moore.

Thirty years on, Turnage’s opera still feels every bit as hard-hitting. Moore has come up with a highly original presentation that makes the most of audience proximity. Of especial importance is the Chorus, a brilliant three-man SAB ensemble — Philippa Boyle, Laura Woods, and Richard Morrison — who fill in the story round the edges. Turnage’s unremitting score underlines the visceral pain of the protagonist, Eddy (Edmund Danon).

Amid a simple neon-surround set, the ensemble in trio, duo, or solo format, evoke the Sphinx, the suffering populace, the patricide, and the triumphant but ill-fated marriage with sizzling power (although a few bits seemed to be dispatched too quickly). Economically, Oedipus’s putative parents, Polybus and Merope, are reintroduced to explain the ghastly mix-up (“Son, we’re not your mum and dad”).

The drawbacks were few in such a vigorously directed production. The self-blinding was quite effective. But I regretted the omission of Tiresias, who generates the ominous self-doubt that paralyses Oedipus’s judgement and by declining, under pressure, to reveal what he alone knows, impels the catastrophe. Grimeborn’s production was a triumph, but possibly the drama just fails.

This year’s festival opened with a new production of Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, a currently topical classical tale topped and tailed with Christian commentary by Male and Female Chorus, and staged by the talented young director Julia Burbach. The final offering was a Baroque revival, Cavalli’s Xerse.

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