On paper these two solo operas are the perfect pairing, but the way audiences receive them may depend on where they happen to sit. Sound balance, so vital when hearing lyric theatre, proves to be a mixed experience: for one of the pieces the Arcola's box-like Studio 2 is ideal but for the other it's a problem, and from my corner seat Anna Rabinowitz's libretto to Tarik O'Regan's The Wanton Sublime was only sporadically audible.
This is not because Hai-Ting Chinn's account fell short in any way – indeed it was a tour de force – but, sensitively as Andrew Griffiths conducted the Orpheus Sinfonia in this ‘one-act monodrama for mezzo-soprano and amplified chamber ensemble', the human voice was up against an array of tuned percussion that filled every inch of a very constricted space. It needs a bigger theatre.
The Wanton Sublime is musically rich, as we'd expect from the composer of Heart of Darkness, and also philosophically absorbing. Rabinowitz rejects the notion of the Virgin Mary as a supine representation of the eternal feminine and depicts instead a strong young woman who questions, challenges and even defies the God who has slated her to be the mother of Christ.
It's a stimulating thesis that owes much to the existential feminism of Simone de Beauvoir (who warned that women's identity had been constructed by men, and therefore urged them to embrace their own freedom) and it's expounded with fierce economy across 30 absorbing minutes.
O'Regan colours the drama with pre-recorded vocal episodes and long melodic lines broken by punchy chords, and it never fails to grip. What a thrilling composer he is; this is vital, compelling music. As for Chinn, the singer who created the role at its American premiere, her dramatic engagement is as striking as her firm, committed voice.
'Virtuosic performance skills'
Robert Shaw's commendably simple staging presents her as a power-dressed young professional who changes midway through into simpler clothes that better assert her individuality. It's a subtle transition, and beautifully judged.
Earlier, the brilliant Chinn had held the floor alone for the 40 minutes of claustrophobic hysteria that is Peter Maxwell Davies's The Medium. This tale of a counterfeit clairvoyant, all fey handclaps and improbable palm-readings, who is gradually overtaken by unseen demons that could be real manifestations of evil or just as easily her own psychotic disturbances, was composed in 1981 and has been revived only rarely.
It's not hard to see why. From the preliminaries of its fourth-wall-breaking comedy to a finale of floor-clawing horror, it's a Ken Russell-like slice of unaccompanied gothic entertainment that demands virtuosic performance skills. And here they are, courtesy of a dazzling Californian mezzo, displayed right under our noses. Maxwell Davies's own text is integrated into his volatile score via naturalistic speech patterns, a gift for this astonishing artist with her capacity for unbridled creative delivery. Go to the Arcola and revel.
- The Medium and The Wanton Sublime play at the Arcola Theatre as part of the 2015 Grimeborn Festival until 29 August.