Last night, Glyndebourne presented Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Proms, a tale of intrigue in a Turkish harem. At Grimeborn Festival, a grungy, hip East End alternative, we had the genuine article: Gariné, an opera buffa by Turkish/Armenian composer Dikran Tchouhadjian, first staged in 1875. Various claims have been made about the composer, such as “the Armenian Verdi” and “the Ottoman Offenbach”, but Tchouhadjian’s music – especially in English translation – has the unfortunate habit of sounding like a Constantinopolitan Arthur Sullivan, with a few oriental curlicues and minor harmonic passages thrown in.

Edward Saklatvala (Armen), Katie Grosset (Shoushan) and Danae Eleni (Gariné) © Robert Workman
Edward Saklatvala (Armen), Katie Grosset (Shoushan) and Danae Eleni (Gariné)
© Robert Workman
Opera became a popular art form in Constantinople in the 19th century. Il trovatore, for example, was staged in the Ottoman capital before it made it to Paris. In July 1899, three theatres ran productions of Aida on the same night! Originally titled Leblebici Horhor Ağa (Master Hor Hor the Chickpea Vendor), Tchouhadjian’s comedy has been given a new libretto and translation by director Gerald Papasian, in what he describes as a semi-staged production, which has previously been seen in Paris and Marseille.

The opera tells the tale of theatre manager, Armen, whose dreams to perform great stageworks are scuppered when his leading lady defects to a rival troupe. By operatic coincidence, in steps the young and beautiful Gariné, who just happens to know all the songs and is persuaded to sing the role of Fatimeh. Hor Hor (Gariné’s father and the chickpea seller of the original title) isn’t so easily persuaded and attempts to sabotage the performance. The comic situation is neatly set up, misunderstandings and romantic entanglements follow and there’s an improbable Damascene moment in the dénouement.

Unfortunately, Papasian’s involvement stretches beyond librettist, translator and director. He presides over a self-indulgent narration which lengthens proceedings unnecessarily (the show ran past 10pm with the briefest of intervals) and should have been avoided entirely with a programme note or synopsis. Full marks for the programme photos though, enabling easy identification of the characters.

Danae Eleni (Gariné) and Leon Berger (Hor Hor) © Robert Workman
Danae Eleni (Gariné) and Leon Berger (Hor Hor)
© Robert Workman

Supported by the tireless Kelvin Thompson, performing the score on a piano tucked beneath a balcony, the young cast gave spirited performances. The limited space of the dungeon-like Arcola Theatre and the proximity of the audience played on the inhibitions of one or two of the cast. Edward Saklatvala never seemed entirely comfortable, though sang pleasantly, his very English tenor making him a likeable Armen, the idealistic theatre manager who falls for his leading lady. Danae Eleni (Gariné) impressed in her lovely entrance aria, her attractive soprano dusky in its lower register, though lacking some ease at the top.

Katie Grosset and Giles Davies stole the show as Shoushan (the ballet mistress) and Markar (Armen’s fixer). Mezzo-soprano Grosset, in particular, was in fine voice (tossing in a few lines from Carmen for good measure) and performed the role with the conviction that was sometimes lacking elsewhere. Davies’ clear diction and firm baritone gave his scenes strength. Sadly, Leon Berger’s Hor Hor lacked buffo brio and was often noticeably flat. It’s the sort of role you could imagine Alessandro Corbelli carrying off brilliantly. Some of Tchouhadjian’s best music is reserved for Hor Hor (he was the original title character after all), including the Act I finale where he leads the ensemble. The multi-tasking nine chorus members acquitted themselves energetically.

Seeing clips of Papasian’s production online, staged to a greater degree, orchestrated and sung in French, the music comes across as much more attractive. The English translation makes it sound like substandard G&S. To what degree the ‘comedy’ was played up for an English audience is difficult to gauge, but the music hall antics of the two “sneaks” were about as funny as the Chuckle Brothers. Funny accents and custard pie gags just don’t cut it.

However, the comic situations tickled my funny bone in a Carry On up the Bazaar sort of a way, and it was good to have one’s interest in Tchouhadjian’s music piqued. If anyone fancies staging his epic opera Arshak II… Now that really sounds like Verdi.