The Invited @ The Arcola Theatre (Grimeorn Festival 2015) Review

Opera Room, a company that is dedicated to writing and producing new operatic works whilst maintaining a classical flair, presents a new “classically modern” opera by Richard Knight and Norman Welch in the studio space of the Arcola Theatre.

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Set in 1916, the opera tells the story of two doctor’s daughters who live in isolation in rural Suffolk after their servant Mrs Galloway has been dismissed and the men have left to fight. The Battle of the Somme is raging and each sister has her own way of dealing with the war. Emily is a woman of science who follows the news and tries to cope with this insanity in a logical way. Violet rejects Emily’s rationality. She wanders around as if under a spell, escaping to a mythological world. Violet is convinced that the Ancient Greek gods are returning and Zeus will impregnate her to cleanse the earth of man’s failures. Although Emily thinks her sister is hallucinating, she too has seen strange figures among the trees.

The orchestra of six takes up most of the small stage but leaves enough space for the singers as it is lined up in the background, framed by withering ivy. The right hand side of the stage is taken up by the kitchen represented by a table and a few pans. Emily is sitting at the table. Overtired by her numerous chores, she has fallen asleep whilst kneading dough. Suddenly she wakes up as Violet – looking frail and nymph-like in her white dress – enters as in a daze. Violet is in a world of her own, communicating with the Ancient Greek gods as a thunderstorm rages along with the sounds of heavy machinegun fire. When Violet collapses, Emily is deeply concerned about her sister who has been feverish and hallucinating. However, she refuses Mrs Galloway’s help when she arrives from the village. Mrs Galloway tries to convince Emily to let her stay as it is not right that two young women should live alone in an isolated house, without servants. Emily assures Mrs Galloway that their uncle is on his way from Scotland to stay with them and sends her away. But during the night when their uncle is supposed to arrive, a massive thunderstorm approaches and Violet, convinced that Zeus is coming, urges Emily to assist her in her preparations. Meanwhile Mrs Galloway is on her way to the two sisters because she has received surprising news that might change everything.

The rousing musical score by Richard Knight, both lyrical and terrifying, creates tension from the start and keeps the audience on edge throughout much the performance. The orchestra, consisting of piano (Elspeth Wilkes), violin (James Widden), viola (Aled Jones), cello (Alison Holford), clarinet/flute (Eleanor Sandbrook), and horn (Tom Pollock), is skilfully conducted by Elspeth Wilkes. Sometimes the orchestra drowns out the singers which might be due to the acoustics of the small studio space.

Directed by Neil Smith, this production is round and intense. Emma Häll convinces as the scientifically inclined Emily who is forced to take over the responsibility for the house and the wellbeing of her ailing sister and finds herself drawn into the logic of Violet’s mythological world. Sarah Minns conveys the fragility of the elfin Violet whose belief in the Ancient Ones borders on insanity. Miriam Sharrad is very good as the lonely Mrs Galloway who is shunned as a witch in her village because she has “the evil eye” and equally rejected by Violet.

Although I am not convinced by the story itself, the performance of this new opera is of a very high standard and greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic audience.  4/5

Review written by Carolin Kopplin.

The Invited was shown at the Arcola Theatre as part of this year’s Grimeborn Festival from Friday 21st to Saturday 22nd August. For more information on this year’s festival, visit here…

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