An Armenian Opera Hits the London Stage



From Theatre Fullstop

The Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre is back for its ninth year. Offering reimagined classics, obscure masterpieces, and interesting new work, Grimeborn is one of the summer festival highlights in London, taking opera aficionados on a journey of discovery. One of the productions definitely worth seeing is Gariné by Dikran Tchouhadjian, the first opera composer of the Ottoman Empire and known during his lifetime as “the Armenian Verdi” and “the Oriental Offenbach”.

Fusing oriental and European styles, Gariné is an opera buffa containing elements of comedy, satire, and farce. Since its composition in Turkish as Leblebici Horhor Ağa (Master Hor Hor the Chickpea Vendor) in 1875, Gariné has been adapted three times for film (for example by Nazim Hikmet), and has delighted audiences all over Europe and the Middle East. The production at the Arcola is an English adaptation by Gerald Papasian who directs a semi-staging, the full version of which was previously performed in French at the Théâtre de Saint-Maur, Paris and the Théâtre de l’Odéon, Marseille.

Armen dreams of creating the first great theatre company in Constantinople. He intends to open with an ambitious production based on “Arabian Nights”. Yet on opening night, disaster strikes – his leading actress defects to a rival troupe. Armen is desperate and even considers casting his baritone as a soprano but then Gariné appears in a boat singing a lovely tune. Armen is inflamed with passion for her voice, but her father Hor Hor is strongly opposed to his daughter singing in the theatre. Can Armen’s production be saved?

The stage is bare except for a large trunk and a piano, which will be the orchestra for this evening, conducted by Musical Director Kelvin Thomson. Gerald Papasian, the Director of the show, who has also written the adaptation and translated it into English, informs us that this will be a semi-staged production and his task is to explain the elements of the show that we are not going to see. He then apologises that the cast will tonight be reduced to the chorus because the real soloists have been held up at Heathrow due to a tube strike. As the Prompter and the Chorus, all dressed in black, take the stage, the play within the play begins with Armen’s dilemma – who is going to play his Fatime on opening night?

When Markar appears with a group of street performers as an alternative to the threatened show, Armen almost resorts to violence. His goal is forming a great theatre company to provide art for the culture starved citizens of Constantinople, not to cater to commercialism. Markar retorts: “What will the critics say? That we only turn out shows that the public likes?” The street performers are quickly dismissed. Suddenly, Armen hears the most beautiful voice as Gariné arrives by boat. Armen is convinced that he has found his Fatime but Gariné’s father, a chickpea vendor, will not have his daughter dishonour him by performing on a stage. Whilst Armen is desperately trying to save his show with the help of Markar, Hor Hor as well as two slapstick baddies named Sneak 1 and Sneak 2 try to thwart his efforts. Of course Armen soon finds that there he has got more than a professional interest in the attractive Gariné and his feelings seem to be reciprocated. But what about Armen’s relationship to dance instructor Shoushan?

Papasian’s witty and clever modernised version is highly entertaining and peppered with misquotes from Shakespeare and other classics as well as references to current events. The fusion of oriental elements with western opera is intriguing. I could also detect a resemblance to Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. A meta operetta with a play within a play that is framed by another play, this funny and original work provides many laughs, romance, and beautiful arias, expertly sung by the ensemble and skilfully accompanied by Kelvin Thomson. Danae Elini is lovely as the gifted Gariné and Edward Saklatvala convinces as the inspired director Armen. Giles Davies shows true swashbuckling spirit as Markar and Leon Berger gives an outstanding comic performance as the chickpea vendor Hor Hor. Katie Grosset is confident and professional as dance instructor Shoushan. 4/5

Gariné was shown at the Arcola Theatre from Friday 14th to Saturday 15th August as part of this year’s Grimeborn Festival.


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