Review: ‘Gariné,’ An Armenian Opera Hits the London Stage…


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Scenes from "Gariné"

Scenes from “Gariné”

LONDON (Theatre Full Stop) — 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 Aga (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 apologizes 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?

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 modernized 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

Review written by Carolin Kopplin

 “Gariné” was shown at the Arcola Theatre August 14 and 15 as part of this year’s Grimeborn Festival.