Arcola Theatre, London
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
Fringe opera festivals sometimes give us a chance to see new work in progress – i.e. unfinished operas currently in the making. This is especially interesting if you can then see the finished work a few years later, and compare it to the early draft; but it’s also fun to see a nascent opera and wonder where it might go, or how it might end.
Grimeborn’s “in-progress sharing” of Penelope: Seven Ways to Wait provides 40 minutes of intriguing and accomplished musicality, loosely themed around the concept of waiting, with the classical heroine Penelope (long-suffering, long waiting wife of Odysseus) at its emotional helm. Composer and pianist Kristina Arakelyan offers a warm personal introduction to the piece, and follows up with a Q&A session.
After the briefest of rehearsal periods (a week and a half), this skilful cast shows remarkable commitment, and the performance already feels tight and convincing. Mayou Trikerioti’s ingeniously simple design, a circle of black chairs with extremely simple props (a black scarf, some red wool, a few large candles), somehow gives director Lucy Bradley everything she needs to create seven different scenes: we whizz from Penelope’s palace in ancient Ithaca to a modern-day gym, as Arakelyan and librettist Helen Eastman examine different ideas of waiting across history.
Anna Starushkevych’s Penelope is resplendent in a long, beaded cream gown and sandals, while her six-strong Chorus wear long red shifts, creating a slick, focused and resolutely classical look on stage. Surtitles and scene labels clearly guide us through the action as the piece moves briskly through time.
After beautifully evoking Penelope’s famous weaving stratagem, we end up in a Soho restaurant where Penelope waits at tables (I’m still not sure why). Next, she’s the leader of a Suffragette movement advocating violence to achieve political change: they have waited for the vote long enough.
There follows a beautiful, wordless, harmonic vigil against violence against women, framed by the poignant phrase “Text me when you get home” as candles are lit for Sarah Everard and other victims, whose families still wait in vain for them: deeply moving. We also visit a sweaty gym, modern-day war-torn Ukraine, witch-ridden Elizabethan England and our own inner creativity: this piece goes all over the place.
On the one hand, this gives Arakelyan an opportunity to show a rich variety of compositional styles and moods, and the variety is certainly impressive. Her elegant piano accompaniment lays a strong foundation for powerful, warm harmonies using a range of female voices; the piece is also peppered with occasional, well-handled speech. Arakelyan knows how to set English clearly, and key phrases (“Spin your story and then: unwind…”, “Deeds not words”) shine across. The chorus’ glorious singing does Arakelyan’s ideas grand justice, and Starushkevych’s Penelope, though opening with a somewhat harsh gravelled edge to her voice, soon finds fluency and lyricism, while she maintains a compelling stage presence throughout.
However, ultimately the piece is only carried through by the skill and commitment of its cast, fervently bringing us into its music. Conceptually, there is still some way to go before the work achieves a similar level of satisfaction. Such disparate images, yoked together often by only a passing reference to Penelope, or the mere fact of waiting, manage neither to shed light on Penelope as a character, nor on waiting as an activity. The first section, closest to Homer’s story, digs deep into Penelope’s resolve: “I waited, fought the war within my mind, slaying the daily grind” – and perhaps this golden seam could be mined further. There’s plenty of musical energy here, and much to enjoy already on that front; but shaping this opera into a coherent intellectual journey, and deciding which way to commit the concept (whether to Penelope, or to waiting) must surely be the next question for Arakelyan and her talented team. Currently, it feels unresolved, scratching the surface of various feminist issues without telling us more – yet…
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Part of Grimeborn 2022 at the Arcola