Tag Archives: Arcola Theatre



Fringe opera festivals sometimes give us a chance to see new work in progress – i.e. unfinished operas currently in the making. This is especially interesting if you can then see the finished work a few years later, and compare it to the early draft; but it’s also fun to see a nascent opera and wonder where it might go, or how it might end. Grimeborn’s “in-progress sharing” of Penelope: Seven Ways to Wait provides 40 minutes of intriguing and accomplished musicality, loosely themed around the concept of waiting, with the classical heroine Penelope (long-suffering, long waiting wife of Odysseus) at its emotional helm. Composer and pianist Kristina Arakelyan offers a warm personal introduction to the piece, and follows up with a Q&A session.

After the briefest of rehearsal periods (a week and a half), this skilful cast show remarkable commitment, and the performance already feels tight and convincing. Mayou Trikerioti’s ingeniously simple design, a circle of black chairs with extremely simple props (a black scarf, some red wool, a few large candles), somehow gives director Lucy Bradley everything she needs to create seven different scenes: we whizz from Penelope’s palace in ancient Ithaca to a modern-day gym, as Arakelyan and librettist Helen Eastman examine different ideas of waiting across history. Anna Starushkevych’s Penelope is resplendent in a long, beaded cream gown and sandals, while her six-strong Chorus wear long red shifts, creating a slick, focused and resolutely classical look on stage. Surtitles and scene labels clearly guide us through the action as the piece moves briskly through time. After beautifully evoking Penelope’s famous weaving stratagem, we end up in a Soho restaurant where Penelope waits at tables (I’m still not sure why). Next, she’s the leader of a Suffragette movement advocating violence to achieve political change: they have waited for the vote long enough. There follows a beautiful, wordless, harmonic vigil against violence against women, framed by the poignant phrase “Text me when you get home” as candles are lit for Sarah Everard and other victims, whose families still wait in vain for them: deeply moving. We also visit a sweaty gym, modern-day war-torn Ukraine, witch-ridden Elizabethan England and our own inner creativity: this piece goes all over the place.

On the one hand, this gives Arakelyan an opportunity to show a rich variety of compositional styles and moods, and the variety is certainly impressive. Her elegant piano accompaniment lays a strong foundation for powerful, warm harmonies using a range of female voices; the piece is also peppered with occasional, well-handled speech. Arakelyan knows how to set English clearly, and key phrases (“Spin your story and then: unwind…”, “Deeds not words”) shine across. The chorus’ glorious singing does Arakelyan’s ideas grand justice, and Starushkevych’s Penelope, though opening with a somewhat harsh gravelled edge to her voice, soon finds fluency and lyricism, while she maintains a compelling stage presence throughout.

However, ultimately the piece is only carried through by the skill and commitment of its cast, fervently bringing us into its music. Conceptually, there is still some way to go before the work achieves a similar level of satisfaction. Such disparate images, yoked together often by only a passing reference to Penelope, or the mere fact of waiting, manage neither to shed light on Penelope as a character, nor on waiting as an activity. The first section, closest to Homer’s story, digs deep into Penelope’s resolve: “I waited, fought the war within my mind, slaying the daily grind” – and perhaps this golden seam could be mined further. There’s plenty of musical energy here, and much to enjoy already on that front; but shaping this opera into a coherent intellectual journey, and deciding which way to commit the concept (whether to Penelope, or to waiting) must surely be the next question for Arakelyan and her talented team. Currently, it feels unresolved, scratching the surface of various feminist issues without telling us more – yet…


Part of Grimeborn 2022 at the Arcola

Rating: Three


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THE MAGIC FLUTE. Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre E8


Opera Alegria’s vivacious foray into Mozart’s Magic Flute for Grimeborn takes its inspiration from the theatrical superstition of the ghost light, a small light left lit on every stage in an empty theatre to appease the spirits which may (allegedly) haunt the wings. Director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith, in a poignant programme note, relates this tradition of “keeping a light on” in a dark theatre to the struggle which artists of all kinds faced through Covid: as the malevolent Monostatos (Robert Jenkins), a brutal Front of House Manager, threatens Pamina, “Maybe your next job’s in cyber.” Watching the Arcola Main Stage defiantly bursting with real-life, real world talent back doing what they were born to do, their energy and enthusiasm crackling out at us all night, the short-sighted callousness of that slogan has only got more toe-curling with time. We are lucky that Opera Alegria’s team were not won over to cyber, as this Magic Flute joyously proves.

Nevertheless, keeping the theatrical lights on is hard work, and the vortex artists inhabit between failure and success, nerves, money, talent and the determined pursuit of Art in the face of public criticism and private self-doubt is the central neurosis of this often rather meta production, as explained in librettist Lindsay Bramley’s equally emotional and punchy programme note. Pamina here is an aspirational young performer, played with fresh charm by soprano Naomi Kilby. Keen to escape the traditional theatre practices of her ageing diva Mother, the Queen of the Night (a majestic, show-stopping Fae Evelyn), Pamina has joined the experimental troupe of Sarastro (Alistair Sutherland), a Svengali-like Conceptual Director in a white Warhol wig and a kaftan, whose idea of theatrical heaven is “the Tantric Grunge Collective’s simultaneous treatment of the works of Samuel Beckett.” [Sounds like he has an instinct for an Edinburgh Fringe hit, anyway.] Sutherland’s rich and resonant bass, though not always diving right down to the very deepest pearls of Mozart’s challenging score, brings a commanding fascination to Sarastro, while a few brilliantly observed character tics (a fussiness in walking, deliberate over-pronunciation of words, and mystic finger cymbals) explain Sarastro’s cult leader status with ease and humour. The glorious casting only gets better for the Three Ladies, with Caroline Carragher, Anna Prowse and Frances Stafford forming a truly fabulous trio of cleaners, reappearing in death metal T shirts (and equally terrific voice) as Stage Management. With many roles doubled or even tripled, this ensemble never miss a note, a harmony or a comic beat: true luxury casting. Snapping at their heels for our attention is a honey-toned and remarkably lovable Papageno from René Bloice-Sanders, whose laddish disconnection from the artistic crises around him provides welcome contrast. Peter Martin’s pleasantly-sung Tamino, some skilful humour from Christopher Killerby and deft support from Matthew Duncan round off a strong cast. Lindsay Bramley’s lambent and expressive piano accompaniment sheds colour and a pulsing sense of rhythm across the whole.

Christopher Killerby’s clever, pared-down design keeps us in the world of an undressed theatre with clever use of puppetry to animate ordinary backstage objects, the “ghost light” chasing Tamino like an angry Chinese Dragon, while Papageno’s birds are flying music scores. Not everything works: the final use of projection, though elegant, happens at an angle not easily visible to much of the audience. More crucially, the innate problems of The Magic Flute, a nonsensical story whose plot turns on emotional hair triggers with little rational explanation, remain. Indeed, updating the Flute to a contemporary setting, with rather more “real” personalities for Pamina and Tamino, only accentuates the Flute’s intrinsic weaknesses: ironically for a piece from the Age of Enlightenment, it seemingly can never work as believable modern drama, because the archaic sexual and social dynamics constantly trip it up. Bramley and Newhouse-Smith are using it as a vehicle for a good discussion of modern problems, but sometimes, like turning one of Papageno’s paper birds into a carrier pigeon, the plot is just too weak to carry their admirable ideas home. However, as far as nonsense goes, it’s absolutely gorgeous, meta-fuelled, thought-provoking nonsense from start to finish; and the music making is sublime. Don’t waste too much time trying to make sense of it: there’s still plenty to enjoy here.


Until 20 August at the Arcola Theatre, 020 7503 1646: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/the-magic-flute/

Rating: Four

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DIE WALKÜRE Hackney Empire, N1


Grimeborn are following up their fantastic 2019 Das Rheingold (see my previous review) with Die Walküre this year. Moving to the gorgeous Hackney Empire, with the Orpheus Sinfonia comfortably ensconced in the pit, this production has a far larger canvas, and opportunity, than its sister Rheingold ever did. However, it fails to achieve the emotional heft and visceral immediacy of its predecessor, despite competent singing and a strong creative team.

Designer Bettina John locates the story inside a dark warehouse, thronged with menacing steel scaffolding towers, neon-lit from beneath and topped with floating vintage industrial lights. Visually arresting, and certainly photogenic, the set offers surprisingly limited opportunities for action and play; or perhaps it just didn’t fire director Julia Burbach’s imagination. She has certainly opted for a difficult line through the piece, focusing on rootlessness in a music drama which is all about close bonds, and how much it hurts to break them. Burbach makes much of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s traumatised state, giving us two broken, hunted human beings terrified of the world and each other, but the gawky physicality between them is constantly at odds with Wagner’s music, which thrills with sensuality and conviction, and this makes hard work for the audience.

The bond between Wotan (Mark Stone) and Brünnhilde (Laure Meloy) doesn’t ring true, either: the stage action feels alternately static and rootless, rather than grounded in strong emotion. As a result, this reduced version by the composer Jonathan Dove, and the incredible (and sadly missed) Graham Vick, feels curt, even brusque at times. I never thought I would ‘notice the gaps’ in any Walküre, but as the singers slip into ‘park and bark’ mode, or wander aimlessly around the scaffolding, you find yourself watching one sung phrase end and waiting for the next, the opposite of through-sung continuous drama (Wagner’s great gift to opera). Exceptionally basic side-titles reduce the piece even further, skipping key lines in the German holding deep thematic significance: this won’t help a first-timer.

There are a few practical problems: Peter Selwyn sometimes stumbles into some rather hairy tempi with the Orpheus Sinfonia, occasionally struggling to balance orchestra and singers (the brass section in particular seem to have a vendetta on Sieglinde’s best bits). There are also a few actively annoying things: Hunding’s hut is a corporate 3-piece suite which, frustratingly, Siegmund and Sieglinde have to put away before running off to escape him: never has a romantic flight felt more prosaic or less urgent. Nothung is a wooden staff, concealed anonymously on the scaffolding: there’s no sword (and no Excalibur moment), one of the vital visual (and musical) images of the Ring Cycle. Worse, in the climactic battle, Nothung doesn’t actually break; broken bits do turn up later, but as you can’t re-forge a wooden staff, it feels very token. If the concept delivered more for the work in other ways, these niggles wouldn’t irritate so much.

Natasha Jouhl’s warm and lovely soprano makes for a special Sieglinde, while Finnur Bjarnason’s big, strong tenor (with just a touch of gravel) suits Siegmund nicely. Harriet Williams makes a memorably pouty, relentless and finely sung Fricka. Simon Wilding’s unsettling, convincing Hunding uses his huge voice as a weapon, to brilliant (near comic) effect. Our Valkyries (cut to just three) get the best costumes (sassy leather coats and boots), with Elizabeth Karani’s super-feisty Helmwige throwing some much-needed fire on the stage, but it’s too little, too late. Stone and Meloy don’t have an overall psychological grip on their key roles of Wotan and Brünnhilde, despite occasional fine moments from each; there’s a feeling of getting through their roles, rather than steadily revealing them.

Grimeborn’s Das Rheingold got right to the bones of that work, delivering something punchy, visceral and exciting to the Arcola’s stage from a huge, rambling canvas. This does the opposite, taking a tense, intimately human drama and letting it unravel. I have never known Die Walküre fail to connect before, particularly in the hands of a talented team. Let’s hope this cycle gets right back on track as they progress towards a future Siegfried.

~ Charlotte Valori

https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/die-walkure/ to 7 August

Part of the Grimeborn Festival

Rating: Three  

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