Céphale et Procris at Grimeborn Opera Festival review: defiantly of its time

 (PR Handout)
(PR Handout)

Sometimes reviewers must eat their words. Last month, reviewing a performance of music by the 17th century French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, I said that “London is unlikely to see her operas any time soon.” Wrong. Now, just a month later, De la Guerre’s only surviving opera, Céphale et Procris, is playing in London. I confess my sin of omission.

After impressing Louis XIV with her keyboard skills, Jacquet became a court musician at Versailles: French baroquerie doesn’t come more exalted than that. In 1694, she became the first woman to have an opera – Céphale et Procris – performed by the Paris Opera. She probably didn’t imagine that one day it would arrive on the backstreets of Dalston, but here it is, part of Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre’s annual festival of experimental and fringe opera.

If it feels slightly out of place in the Arcola’s distinctly unpalatial setting, it retains a certain alien charm. It tells the kind of story beloved of baroque composers throughout Europe: Céphale and Procris are in love but everything – gods, fate, war – conspires against them. The enemy Borée fancies Procris for himself, so he enlists the help of goddess Aurora. She in turn takes a shine to Céphale, summoning up demons to work on her behalf. Spoiler alert: it ends badly.

Simple? Not really: it takes a stately 150 minutes to unfold. Working with his own company, Ensemble OrQuesta, Marcio da Silva directs and conducts; he also designed the set, costumes and choreography, while also preparing a new performing edition of the score. He even takes a singing role. The result is not a one-man show but a convincing ensemble performance.

The young cast performs idiomatically, not overdoing the fervour but achieving real intensity. In the title roles, Kieran White and Poppy Shotts, and Jack Lawrence-Jones as Borée, sing with unusual emotional clarity, matched throughout by the eight-piece instrumental ensemble: the period instruments carry just the right weight for the Arcola’s tiny performing area. The opera is sung in variably idiomatic French, with a sometimes clunky translation projected onto the walls (and not easily visible to some audience members).

If musical standards are high, Da Silva’s staging strives for a relevance not always achieved. There’s cross-dressing, gender-switching and plenty of synchronised slo-mo movement but too often it all feels pasted onto a work that, dramatically, remains defiantly of its time.

Arcola Theatre, to September 2, arcolatheatre.com