Grimeborn: Alternative Opera at the Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre
The bar at Arcola Theatre, an exellent place for a glass of wine before the show. (You can take it in with you.)

We love the Arcola Theatre, London’s most vibrant and ambitious alternative theatre. It’s up in Dalston, a maelstrom of multicultural life, once an area of dubious repute, but now verging on getting to be maybe nearly (dare I say the word?) trendy. Every summer, for those of us who can’t afford the Glyndebourne Festival, it hosts the Grimeborne Festival of Alternative Opera, where tiny, impoverished opera companies present glorious music.

Wednesday’s program was called The Clown of Clowns, consisting of two works: Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Sideshows, by Leo Geyer. The presenting companies were Constella Ballet & Orchestra in collaboration with Khymerikal. The program points out that “many of the musicians involved in this production are members of both ensembles”.

Pierrot Lunaire, despite its atonal musical idiom and a text that resists interpretation, is one of Schoenberg’s most accessible works, due to the emotional intensity of the musical writing and the arresting quality of the Sprechstimme vocal style, halfway between speaking and singing. Schoenberg’s musical “melodrama” is based on 21 poems by the French poet Albert Giraud, but translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. You can follow the parallel German and English texts on the sheets thoughtfully provided, but it won’t help that much. The poems are disconnected, allusive and mood-drenched.

Best to just let the word sounds wash over you, as sung with enormous energy and conviction by soprano Emma Stannard. And open your eyes and your heart to the story danced by Matt Petty (Pierrot), Amelia O’Hara (Columbine) and Peter Moir (Cassander). The style is contemporary ballet, choreographed by Alfred Taylor Gaunt, demanding and evocative. And beautifully executed. The singer is onstage as well, her flashing eyes directing the force of Schoenberg’s sounds and the poems at the characters. All this in a tiny space, not much bigger than Artword Artbar.

The second production, written by the group’s Artistic Director, Leo Geyer, features a musical ensemble of clowns and sideshow acts by dancers and singers. It’s inventive and good fun. Also, it provides a vehicle that makes some very fine contemporary music, with some jazz-elements, more accessible.


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