If Aylin Bozok is directing anything at Grimeborn, I always try to go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her past productions: her powerfully considered, exquisitely poised approach is always rich in symbolism, intensely crafted in detail, and beautifully acted. Grimeborn has seen some wonderful opera from Bozok in recent years: her Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther there remain some of the most hauntingly memorable accounts of those works I’ve seen on any stage. Noah Mosley’s Aurora channels several themes at which Bozok excels: it’s a fairytale full of brutal characters, playing with questions of destiny, fate and love, human greed versus nature, and the timeless opposition of male and female. Taking a monochrome palette for Holly Piggott’s design, characters appear on a plain stage in pale, softly sculptural versions of eighteenth-century dress, with a gloriously billowing many-caped cloak for the King of Loreda that any Georgette Heyer hero would strangle his valet for. Bozok’s visual language is characteristically controlled and resonant: characters who are in sympathy with nature, for example, ‘bleed’ earth on stage, explained in a programme note which carefully delineates her overall vision for the piece.
So Aurora, thanks to Bozok and Piggott, looks gorgeous. It also has a great cast, headed up by Andrew Tipple as the grief-stricken King who, having lost his wife to suicide, is desperate to prevent his deeply depressed daughter going the same way. Tipple gives a mesmerising and sophisticated performance full of natural drama, trembling with unresolved anguish at one moment, prickling with uncontrollable fury at the next, as his ever more forceful attempts to save his daughter only serve to drive her further from him. Tipple’s honeyed, yet accurate bass and subtle, expressive acting are a joy. Katherine Aitken is a delight as the dynamic Wild Woman to whom he turns for help, her body language sparky and semi-animalistic, her soprano full, clear and warm. Isolde Roxby has a harder task with the eponymous heroine Aurora, an unlikeably bitter, selfish princess, but skilfully brings her on an emotionally believable journey, finding an adolescent, selfish inner truth in her defiance against the world (as symbolised by her father). Dominic Bowe’s winsome Prince doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself; Magid El Bushra has much more fun with two smaller parts, a catty, camp suitor for Aurora and a marvellous owl (also the best costume, a pillar of dark cloth with a resplendent headdress of feathers). The chorus are slick and effective when on stage, less convincing off. Jean-Max Lattemann’s vocally piercing, stentorian Mountain Witch was a difficult listen, and an awkward presence in the piece; but that wasn’t Lattemann’s fault.
The trouble is that, despite excellent design and direction, and a committed cast, Aurora is let down by two key things: libretto and score. Elisabetta Campeti’s plot begins with a couple of interesting ideas (nature as a reciprocal power relationship in which we must participate responsibly; the lasting family impact of suicide), but these are unfortunately mixed in with many boring old tropes: feisty princess constrained by angry father, rich elite sneering at nature… Worst of all, it culminates in a princess being chained to a rock, and when liberated (more by accident than design), what should she do but fall in love with a passing prince, who is charmed not by her personality, or her abilities, but by? Her appearance. This was when I completely lost patience with Aurora: we need to go forward, not backward, and perpetrating harmful stereotypes in which women need to be “saved” or defined by their interactions with men is just demented on a modern stage. Campeti chickens out of saying anything profound, which leaves Bozok with a mess to clear up that is hard to disguise. The libretto itself is dire, verging on Pearl Fishers levels of banality (we even get “every cloud has a silver lining” – without irony). Noah Mosley’s schizophrenic score lurches across a myriad of styles, often delivering a musical mood directly at odds with the action on stage, which I found irritating rather than interesting. The occasional moments of jazz could have been used in a fascinating way, but in fact, felt like Mosley had run out of ideas and was throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, or was just irresponsibly making musical mischief – neither helps form a coherent or compelling narrative act. Mosley is just as callous with his good ideas as his bad ones: one brilliant melody, a lilting Middle Eastern aria for the Owl, created temporary magic on stage, only to be summarily destroyed moments later as the score rocketed off in yet another direction. The whole evening felt rather like being stuck inside a musical expression of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, or watching a child juggle with the entire contents of a bedroom. Noah Mosley, conducting, seemed to be getting what he wanted from his orchestra, who played with joyful aplomb, but this score sat stubbornly between us and the opera, rather than carrying us into it.
Bozok’s directorial skill ironically highlights these flaws, her instinct for inner meaning coming up empty-handed against the eventual floundering of the opera as a piece of meaningful drama, though she put as much emotional gloss on the disappointing ending as she dared. I can see why the piece initially tempted her: but ultimately, this superb director can achieve far more with a meatier, better reasoned piece.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (22-25 August only)
A Bury Court Opera production, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre