“My interest is people,” Dominick Argento told Minnesota Public Radio in 2002. “I am committed to working with characters, feelings, and emotions.” And what better way to honour the late composer’s artistic reason d’être than by coupling his one-act monodrama Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (a paired-down version of his abortive 1979 opera Miss Havisham’s Fire) with Aaron Copland’s abstract musical exploration of legendary introvert Emily Dickinson. On paper – or in this case, on programme – such a “labyrinthine gender study” is an attractive gambit, and director Ralph Bridle well-nigh pulls it off.

Sarah Minns © Simoni Citeroni
Sarah Minns
© Simoni Citeroni

I say well-nigh because, in truth, this splicing-together of musically disparate worlds feels a touch lopsided. Leonard Bernstein put it rather savagely when he described Copland’s music as plain: “That’s one of his biggest words – plain. It’s plain! That applied to a lot of music of his”. And indeed, it could easily be argued that the austere and abstract 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson – none of which contain the popular American flavour that permeates his ballets – are just that. This is not to say that they are boring, but that a stick-thin piano score – often merely outlining chords – and distinctly economic approach to vocal writing present a distinctly ascetic musical landscape, which, when heard alongside the sumptuous Miss Havisham, feels like the gruel to Argento’s cinnamon-charged porridge.

Compounding this sense of asymmetry is the differing effectiveness of each as pieces of theatre. A clear narrative shapes Miss Havisham, as we follow the jilted bride’s quotidian re-enaction of that fateful wedding day fifty years previous. Argento regularly offers his audience respite from the agony and despair that shrouds his protagonist (a spontaneous outburst of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ leads Aurelia to congratulate herself on this “brand-new witticism”), and the multiform colours and contours in the music lend themselves perfectly to the stage. The same cannot be said of 12 Poems. Copland himself made no attempt to explain the organisation of the poems, nor how he chose them. In the cycle’s preface he wrote of how they “centre about no single theme, but treat of subject matter particularly close to Miss Dickinson: nature, death, life and eternity”. Indeed, the consensus amongst musicologists (apart from an elegant deciphering attempt by Beverly Soll and Ann Dorr) is that, despite a vague sense of musical unity, Copland employs none of the customary cyclical devices that are supposed to guarantee dramaturgic continuity.

Sarah Minns © Simoni Citeroni
Sarah Minns
© Simoni Citeroni

In other words, it doesn’t lend itself well to the highfalutin, operatic interpretation Bridle gives it (stuffed parakeet included, which went over my head I’m afraid), and when blown up in this way it becomes pixelated. Miss Havisham on the other hand – conceived for the stage before being expertly chiselled down – is a high-definition, exquisite miniature, charismatically brought to life by soprano Sarah Minns who combined needlepoint vocal accuracy with an impressive dramatic range. If there was little continuity between the works themselves (other than some shared staging), David Eaton provided it by the sackful through bold, inquisitive piano playing. Doubling as the Music Director, his warts-and-all interpretations of these fiendish works exhibits a clear dedication to both composers.

Which brings me to the tusked elephant in the rehearsal room: Messrs Bridle, Eaton, Copland and Argento, for all their artistry and experience, are men. Now I have no wish to upbraid Grimeborn for any lack of gender representation. They, amongst other fringe festivals, are making great strides towards gender parity amongst their creative teams (this becomes painfully obvious when you compare credits with those more established operatic behemoths). But it does seem a bit fishy that a show devoted to the study of the female psyche should be shaped by the minds of men. (For those interested in a more bona fide operatic exploration of “female (dis)empowerment”, I point you towards Grimeborn’s upcoming Silk Moth – written, directed and performed by an all-female team).

That is not to dissuade anybody from catching this worthy production. But go for the spacious, stark beauty of Copland’s music – detached from Argento’s brilliant dramatic instinct. Under his care, characters at the end of their wits – the isolated, suicidal Virginia Woolf, Aspern’s despairing and aged lover Juliana Bordereau, and of course the delirious Miss Havisham – become tamed and relatable, and, as his student at the University of Minnesota Russell Plat writes, “getting to know them, we feel a little less extreme ourselves”.

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