Green Opera @ Grimeborn

Reviewer's Rating

After last year’s fine performance of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, Green Opera return with three separate operatic offerings. Firstly, ‘555: Verlaine en prison’ an examination of the pivotal events in the life of French poet, Paul Verlaine; and then as a double bill, two one-act operas by Jake Heggie and Francis Poulenc. These are thoroughly absorbing evenings of accomplished music making that ask some hard questions about the nature of identity, whether personal or artistic.

Verlaine’s life was one of artistic extremes. After winning an early reputation for his exquisite lyric poetry, he crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, losing his marriage through a scandalous affair with the much younger poet Arthur Rimbaud, and ultimately his life to alcoholism and drug addiction. At one point he was imprisoned (for the 555 days of the title) after wounding Rimbaud with a gun shot in the midst of a quarrel; and it is this melodramatic episode that forms the centrepiece of the first work. Director Eleanor Burke & counter tenor Logan Lopez Gonzalez have assembled a collage of letters and poems, all in French, that are interspersed between a range of period settings of Verlaine’s poetry by Debussy, Hahn – and above all – Gabriel Fauré. With admirable stamina and panache, Lopez sings all the songs and Anna Sideris, as Rimbaud and Mathilde, Verlaine’s long-suffering wife, joins him in delivering the French text – with, it should be said, admirable diction and accents. Pianist Stella Marie Lorenz contributes notably sensitive accompaniments and solo piano works too.

That said, the dramaturgy does not fully convince. Much of the poetry and music set to it expresses exquisitely phrased romantic regret evocative of the world of Watteau and ‘masques et bergamasques’. This is not always a good fit with the raw violence and crudity of much of the action. There really needs to be more work done in connecting and explaining the disjunction between Verlaine’s artistic aspirations and the ugly chaos of what his life became. As a concept this programme is admirable, but structure and development really need further work.

No such strictures apply to the Heggie-Poulenc double bill. Both works are beautifully assembled and strike sparks off one another here, as signalled in a delightful linking device between the two just before the interval. It is extraordinary that this is the UK premiere of Heggie’s ‘At the Statue of Venus’. It is a very accessible, dramatically convincing, piece that zips past in under half and hour, making an admirable starter-course for many a longer programme. Laura Mekhail plays a woman waiting in a museum for a first date. She goes through the familiar sequence of anxieties about her appearance, whether the date will arrive, and what might happen, before the emotional range broadens to encompass family memory and more complex questions of identity. Ultimately we are invited to ask ourselves what any of us can reasonably expect to give and to receive in relationships. This is a lot to encompass, and Mekhail took us with her all the way, rising to the demanding technical and emotional challenges with rare accomplishment. Hopefully, there will be further performances of this work before long.

‘La Voix Humaine’, Poulenc’s famous account of the end of a relationship, conducted entirely on the telephone, is a well known work, but does not always get the performances it deserves. The great merit of Katherine McIndoe’s performance, quite apart from its vocal prowess, is that you really do believe you are listening to a conversation rather than a monologue. You do get a sense of who is on the other end of the line and why relations have become so fraught between them. The switchback of passionate love, anger, regret, self-hatred and loss of self-respect is presented with gruesome plausibility; but we also get plenty of comic moments along the way, not least through the interruptions from other callers evoking the novelty and frailty of telecommunications in the 1950s. It is a fine directorial touch by Eleanor Burke to make ‘Elle’ pregnant, thus giving us and the performer a ready means to understand the extent and fierceness of her desperation, even from the outset of the call.

Elspeth Wilkes is the expert pianist for both these operas, supportive and lyrical as needed, and heroically fighting her way through some dodgy lighting cues in the first half. The economy of the set design also deserves a mention. The same ‘red-lips’ telephone on a pedestal did service both for the statue of Venus and the instrument in the second half, a touch that would have been appreciated, you have to think, by the subversively Surreal spirits of both Poulenc and Jean Cocteau – whose work provided the original inspiration for ‘La Voix Humaine.’