A pairing of two American music dramas promised plenty of angsty feminist fun for a Friday night at Grimeborn; and I admit, in less accomplished hands, the angst might have overwhelmed the fun. But thanks to a tour de force solo performance from talented soprano Sarah Minns, directed with exceptional care and detail by Ralph Bridle, we were treated to a spellbinding trip inside two extraordinary brains: one real, the other imaginary, both fantasists par excellence. Miss Havisham and Emily Dickinson are icons of deserted womanhood who compel our curiosity alongside compassion, victims of their own time and of themselves. Yet, despite their outer frailty, each is marked by tenacious stubbornness, a determination to bring the world to heel by sheer force of imagination: each makes a sustained creative protest against their reality. Composer Dominick Argento (who died this February) took more than one attempt to realise Miss Havisham’s story as an opera, finally deciding on a monodrama as absorbing as it is unnerving. To soften us up for Argento’s final attack, Aaron Copland’s setting of a dozen Emily Dickinson poems, each dedicated to a different composer friend, is a powerful, elegant exploration of the poet’s extraordinary, tidal emotions, swaying ever further away from sanity. David Eaton’s lustrous piano accompaniment delivers each score with warm, resonant flourish.
Designer Amy Watts sets the stage with a large dining table, surrounded by chairs shrouded in dust sheets, one clearly hiding an inanimate seated figure. A washing line is pegged with letters which will turn out to be from the deceitful Compeyson. Minns enters in a black 1950s dress with a crisp floral apron (perhaps a nod to Dickinson’s legendary gift for baking?) and purrs into the Copland, discovering a Dickinson who is playful, paranoid, divinely inspired and desperate by turns; a glorious human conundrum revealing herself with disarming frankness and fragility through music. Copland’s lieder-like approach endows each poem with its own private world of melody, while Dickinson’s skill with assonance and inner rhyme proves a gift for song: these poems are not so much expressed as emblazoned in Copland’s forensically poised score, and Minns’ gorgeous soprano presses every button in an intense, lyrical performance gently leavened with conspiratorial charm. Director Ralph Bridle adds a toy toucan, which allows Dickinson a friend, pet and confidant, and Minns merrily invites us, toucan and all, on a wild adventure into Emily’s bewildered mind. It is Emily who carries in the wedding cake, adorned with dead flowers and sporting a theatrically-stabbed-in knife, which is vital for the second, darker piece, where we find Miss Aurelia Havisham reliving and re-enacting her fateful jilting. To roll from one piece to another in minutes tests both acting and singing, and the Arcola’s smaller space allows no room to hide, but Minns simply relishes this: her confidence and focus carry all before her, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand as she traces Miss Havisham from her memories as an excited ingénue in cream silk to a haggard, trembling alcoholic, warped by bitter disappointment, alienated, feral, haunting herself rather than living. John Olon-Scrymgeour’s libretto brims with pathos: “It is now, now, always the eternal NOW,” Miss Havisham cries, falling on her knees in anguish before the stopped clock, crushing Compeyson’s last letter of rejection to a ball. By the end, shaking with emotion, smeared with lipstick and blood, Minns can purr, sneer or howl – we are equally mesmerised.
This is what Grimeborn is all about, for me: vibrantly powerful, high quality opera at near-terrifying close quarters, tough but intriguing, with a few surprises tucked in for good measure. Guts, brains and, above all, beauty.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (1-3 August only, run now finished)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre