Tag Archives: Arcola Theatre

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole

Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?

Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, at the Arcola

The Arcola Theatre, up in rough-and-tumble Dalston, is a hotbed of alternative vitality, always trying out new ideas and approaches, politically engaged, with a perspective that spans the globe. The theatre, formerly in a rambling industrial building on Arcola Street, moved a few blocks south in January 2011, a few steps from the Dalston Junction overground station. 

The area has a cosmopolitan mix, with a strong Turkish presence, evidenced by many Turkish restaurants, authentic and inexpensive. The founder and Artistic Director of the Arcola, Mehmet Ergun, is Turkish, managing a dual career spanning London and Istanbul.

This provides a context for Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, a collective creation about the demonstrations in Gezi Park, Istanbul. The piece, the result of 15 weeks of effort, was performed in Turkish, with English surtitles, by a cast of thirteen.

The production, a series of vignettes, had the uneven quality that often results from group creation. There were powerful moments (two young people, surviving a tear gas attack, finding companionship), and episodes that, one might say, need more work. Two things made the evening memorable: the commitment of the company to what was being communicated and the events that were being described. Where the piece lacked polish, it substituted immediacy, the sense that the performers had rushed away from the fray to give us their report. The performers were engaging and believable, and they had something important to say to us, the audience sitting in front of them.

Afterwards, sitting in the Arcola Bar, we fell into conversation with two Turkish people, one who lives in Moscow, and the other an actor in the company. They told us how, during the protests in Istanbul, they sat in front of their televisions all day, unable to do anything else while people like them, people they knew, fought for basic rights and values. This sense of connection, of our own involvement, came across through this piece of theatre.