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 out 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.
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.
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?