The Sound of a Voice is the second Philip Glass-scored production to be premiered in the UK at the annual Grimeborn festival, following 2010’s Les Enfants Terribles. Held in Dalston’s Arcola tent, the low-key feeling is entrenched by the subtlety of the performances and the Chinese instrumentation that drifts in over the sound of rain beating down on the roof. Writer David Henry Hwang explores the themes of age, loneliness and repressed desire through a set of mirroring two-handers. The eponymously titled first half sees Catherine May and Rodney Clarke striking up a relationship laced with anxiety and mutual distrust: Clarke is a samurai who applies the same mental focus and agility to his martial artistry as the menial household tasks he performs at May’s remote hut, where she tenderly cares for the flowers she describes as her ‘family’. The chemistry between the two is strong, with Clarke being particularly good at conveying the sudden bashfulness induced by new found love in middle age. The stripped down set works well with the simple banal dialogue demonstrating the emotional bluntness that develops out of isolation.
The second half, titled Hotel, is more emotionally involving, not least because of its comparative complexity. Geraldine McGreevy plays a brothel owner who sends the women working for her to sleep with a drink so potent that they forget the events of the day. She extends the same twisted benevolence to the suited man, played by Christopher Foster, who turns up night after night seeking only her company. She becomes his confidant, only to find that he is mourning the seppuku of his friend Mishima. McGreevy, a mezzo soprano, is alternately coy and commanding, while Foster convincingly manages the gradation from sinister to saddening.
This was originally a play, which is evident in its small-scale feel and the plain language of the libretto, adapted by Hwang. While much of its distinctiveness and engaging nature comes from the recognisability of the situations depicted, Glass’s composition could have been better used. The pipa and tam tam, among other traditional Chinese instruments, add an ethereal feel to his usual repetitive motifs but the slightness of the material means the music fails to take off and hit the composer’s usual heights of emotion. The opera is rescued by the performances which work the nuances of the writing and elevate the small domestic scenarios into powerful representations of the barrenness of solitude.
For information about Grimeborn Festival go to the Arcola Theatre’s website