THE MEDIUM and THE WANTON SUBLIME
by Peter Maxwell Davies libretto by Anna Rabinowitz music by Tarik O’Regan.
Arcola Theatre (Arcola 2) 24 Ashwin Street E8 3DL To 29 August.
Runs 1hr 35min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 26 August.
The mad and the sad are far from bad in a splendid performance of two inventive scores.
August at the Arcola means the small-scale Grimeborn opera season, including in the smaller Arcola 2 a double-bill of one-woman operas. Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Medium (1981) was written for Mary Thomas, a regular Maxwell Davies performer. It was noted as demanding, even for her. It must be for American mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn – 45 close-focus minutes without instrumental accompaniment.
Music apart, a challenging drama moves its character from the control of reading palms to the traumas of a woman who might be a murderer, or merely hearing voices: the message or the medium.
The composer’s pre-occupation with corruption and religion, and human minds at the extreme (Eight Songs for a Mad King and the Miss Havisham story of Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot were monodramas from the two previous decades), requires Chinn to sing a complex line while expressing violent stages of mind and strong physical reactions. She enacts these with psychological consistency while her rich mezzo handles the score’s sudden high notes with ease.
Even before the piece begins, sitting silently, at moments happy, at others seeming to search the air for news, Chinn is clearly a fine actor, with none of the ‘signalling’ or exaggeration of many opera singers. It’s apparent too in the control with which her palm readings contrast pleasant news to the client, with angry, head turned aside denunciations of the miserable natures she actually detects.
The performance spills from a low raised wooden corridor. Its drawback is the irregular, presumably unintended, percussive addition the character’s boots make on the hollow wooden floor.
In Tarik O’Regan’s new The Wanton Sublime librettist Anna Rabinowitz considers the biblical Mary as an earthly woman. Surrounded now by a 9-strong Orpheus Sinfonia (strings, flute/piccolo, acoustic and electric guitars with tuned and untuned percussion), and more tactfully shod, Chinn suggests the character from her sullen appearance, then through her slow progress along the corridor as she glams-up in clothing and cosmetics for a night walking the streets, maintaining an inward intensity alongside the beautifully delivered vocal line and the instrumental sounds – from jazzy irregular rhythms to sad sustained chords – of O’Regan’s ever-inventive score.
The Medium: Hai-Ting Chinn.
The Wanton Sublime
Mary: Hai-Ting Chinn.
Director: Robert Shaw.
Designer: Gillian Argo.
Lighting: Tom White.