Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.
Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 31 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre