Cabildo – Arcola, London

Composer: Amy Beach 

Libretto: Nan Bagby Stephens

Director: Emma Jude Harris

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

At only an hour long, and contained within the Arcola’s Studio 2, Cabildo is not that big, but it certainly is clever. Composed in 1932, and first performed in 1947, it’s received a few contemporary touches in the production to bring it right up to date – ensuring its insightful themes and notes on love and humans are as relevant today as they were when written, or when the action is set in 1812.

The complicated story of the pirate and slave trader Pierre Lafitte is told through the eyes of a present day group of American tourists at a former prison and governor’s mansion in New Orleans. Lafitte was a pirate, sentenced to death in a potentially corrupt move by the then British Governor, later saved from his fate by either General Jackson, or the lady he loves, Lady Valerie. One of the tourists, Mary, feels it’s far more likely the latter, and her separation from the group and brooding in the cell that held him creates a dream where we see how Valerie may have given Lafitte his freedom

A strong, beautiful sense of despairing romance shoots through the work. The catalyst for the dream sequence, Mary, is shown as a newlywed with second thoughts. Perhaps she is the type to devour romantic novels – the swashbuckling energy of the genre is certainly reflected in her insistence that the lady was responsible for the pirate’s freedom, rather than the prosaic explanation that it was the army general who needed him and his men to fight for him. She pines for love as a result of her lacklustre marriage, and projects her vibrant vision of what happened into her dream, creating a perfect atmosphere for the imagined story of the pirate and his lady to grow. That extended duet, between Alistair Sutherland as Lafitte and Alys Roberts as Valerie is tremendous. Thrilling music that flows through a variety of styles, tension and jeopardy, supernatural storylines and doomed love – all come through a heady presentation of Nan Bagby Stephens’ libretto and Beach’s complex music.

Through the music, the story, the libretto and style the opera shows how we can invent our own narratives – reserving judgement on whether that fantasy life is a positive, or harmful thing. Glossing over this murderous slaver’s reality to portray him as a gentleman pirate in love is potentially harmful, but romantic fantasy to remain happy in a souring love match – potentially not.

Neatly contained, and with a sparky set of ideas from this production under director Emma Jude Harris, Beach’s rich musical work with Bagby Stephens’ words shows a directed human insight, leaving us emotionally richer for the experience.

Runs until 31 August 2019 | Image: Contributed

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