One of Grimeborn’s hottest tickets this season is the double bill of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Medium and Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime, performed to a sold-out audience in the warm, faintly dank cellar that is Arcola’s Studio 2. The pairing speaks encouragingly of our contemporary opera scene: Maxwell Davies, now knighted and in his eighties, has produced pioneering work (1981’s The Medium is an entirely unaccompanied opera, for example), while O’Regan, still south of 40, creates an exotic sound world which references Renaissance polyphony alongside 1970s rock music, using a broad spectrum of instruments and rhythms to make music now celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hai-Ting Chinn in <i>The Medium</i> © Robert Workman
Hai-Ting Chinn in The Medium
© Robert Workman

Each small opera requires only one singer, and Hai-Ting Chinn is the talented mezzo-soprano to take on each role, playing Maxwell Davies’ gently mad Medium first, followed by a postmodern deconstruction of the Virgin Mary as imagined by feminist poet Anna Rabinowitz, who adapted her “florilegium” of poems for O’Regan’s libretto. Both characters, among other preoccupations, grapple with a sense of frustrated motherhood: the Medium is haunted (and even possessed) by a “changeling child”, while Mary is confused and slightly resentful about why she was chosen, and what she was chosen for. Seeing the two pieces in one evening led me to consider, for the first time, the idea of Jesus as an inversion of the changeling folktale trope.

Gillian Argo’s exceptionally simple stage design consists of a long, plain white catwalk cutting across the room on the diagonal, with the orchestra placed either side for The Wanton Sublime. For The Medium, Hai-Ting Chinn strides freely back and forth, a mass of unattended instruments at her back, as she engages with the audience directly (beware: audience participation alert!) in a dynamic physical performance.

Flashing conspiratorial glances at us, punctuated by incursions of a sexually charged trance, Chinn is exceptionally amusing as she reaches out to read palms: anodyne, positive predictions for each person come across in lyrical sweeps of melody, while harsher fates are delivered in snarling, guttural asides, each contrast provoking gusts of laughter. Robert Shaw’s kinetic direction keeps Chinn busy, cutting a demure figure in a high-necked white Victorian gown and ornate blue fringed shawl, but soon writhing on a chair in erotic ecstasy, or crawling across the floor barking like a dog, as the spirits descend.

Maxwell Davies’ libretto is set with bell-like clarity across his animated, spiky melodies, Chinn’s sense of rhythm flawless as she navigates from one sculptural line to the next without assistance from conductor or orchestration, her projection superb and warm-toned, using every vocal effect she can muster (children’s voices, RP accents, etc) to give different characters colour. Everyday phrases (“Well, that explains it, doesn’t it?”) mix with sombre reflections as a variety of voices assail the Medium: “You dare not shake off the earth from your feet, but will still cling awhile to your mortal coils.” While the words themselves are wonderfully clear, the immanence and disappearance of the various characters is harder to track, fracturing the piece into more a stream of consciousness observed than a specific narrative event. Characters who come across most strongly are a mother, who seems to be implicated in her child’s disappearance, and the nurse whom she tries to blame, but the story itself doesn’t grab us: rather, it is Chinn’s sustained and focused characterisation, and bravura command of her voice and music, that keep us on the edge of our seats until the intense, sensual climax.

Hai-Ting Chinn in <i>The Wanton Sublime</i> © Robert Workman
Hai-Ting Chinn in The Wanton Sublime
© Robert Workman

The Wanton Sublime introduces Mary in a modern grey corporate outfit, which she changes on stage into a blue dress – accessorised, however, with metallic red heels and a leather necklace which speak more of the Magdalene than the Mother of God. Rabinowitz’s vision of Mary is empowered, yet complex: a strong woman who has seen and suffered strange reverses of reality and fate, and has not enjoyed them. This Mary is not calmly sacrificial, nor warmly loving: but she has clearly been spiritually elated by her extraordinary experiences. Mary’s memory of the light of God, for example, is powerfully realised in thrilling, swelling sound, using cool, eerie harmonies which reminded me particularly of Britten’s setting of the words “ceremony of innocence” in The Turn of the Screw: beautiful and faintly frightening, Mary pleads, “Light, be not explained.” Elsewhere, O’Regan’s music turns from architectural layering (achieved by playing recorded samples of Chinn’s voice to accompany her live performance) to rock-music swagger, or busily energetic flurries of syncopated notes. O’Regan’s darkly glowing discordancy suits the strange mood of the piece well, half playful and half defiant, but the Orpheus Sinfonia’s sound is often simply too rich for this small space, obscuring Rabinowitz’s words, which are only glorious when we can hear them: “Cut to the garden of my soul, which is landmined.”