Strong female voices aren’t just onstage in the uncharted territory of Amy Beach’s Cabildo. Idgie Beau reviews the latest in the Grimeborn 2019 season:

The thought of pirates in opera will probably conjure images of jolly buccaneers swarthily sailing the seas, and perhaps changing their ways on a Cornish coast. But there is no such thing in Amy Beach’s little-known opera Cabildo, a romantic reflection on the life of Pierre Lafitte, a privateer and smuggler. Lafitte is credited with defending New Orleans, and Louisiana, against British forces in 1812.

With librettist Nan Bagby Stephens, Beach’s Cabildo, is a passionate opera that casts this dark period in history in an idealised light, focusing on the plight of lovers over the wider tragedies outside the walls of the Cabildo itself.

The production opens with a 2019 tour of the Cabildo that once held Lafitte prisoner. A ramshackle pile of junk, covered with palm leaves and grass sits to one side – a few model ships making it reminiscent of items washed ashore after a wreck. The Barker (Beru Tessema) details the violent history of New Orleans to his mostly inattentive tourists who are more interested in selfies than history. That is all bar Mary (Helen Stanley) who, struck by the romantic idea that Lafitte may have been set free by his lover Valarie, is enchanted by the ghosts of the ill-fated couple. She alone will know what really happened in that cell.

Alys Roberts, as the hauntingly delicate yet sensuous Valarie, continues to be a formidable presence of the opera scene as both an actress and a singer. Equally, Stanley’s performance as Mary feels authentically innocent in her avid devotion to love. The female cast members undoubtedly outshine the men in this production, which is a shame when the role of Pierre Lafitte (Alistair Sutherland) takes such prominence throughout the piece. However, Joseph Buckmaster excels in his role of Mary’s oblivious, yet annoyingly endearing, Trump-supporting husband.

Director Emma Jude Harris has drawn clear social parallels between the America of 1812 and that of 2019. Bagby Stephens’ surprisingly modern libretto flirts with how easily history can be idealised, whilst Jude Harris’s contemporary setting acts as a stark reminder that the success of a nation has always come at a great cost to its oppressed peoples. In this production Mary finds an intense connection to the story of Lafitte, an exonerated slave trader, purely because of his romantic story. The nasty facts don’t matter to her. She can’t see beyond her excitement over such a fervent love, one she clearly lacks with her ignorant husband.

When framed in this context, some jarring moments feel like blatant and shrewd political statements, such as a surreptitious ‘upskirting’ photo taken of an unaware female tourist. Or how the Barker is played by the only person of colour in the cast and, as the only non-singing role, therefore represents the silenced voice of people whose presence in American history is disregarded.

These elements are essential to Jude Harris’ vision for Cabildo, but the production sadly fails to contextualise them in the moment. It is frustrating that an understanding of the production’s incredibly astute social commentary is only gleaned with a read of the director’s engaging notes. Despite this, it is exciting that an opera such as Cabildo is pointing a knowing finger at the country’s current administration and showing how far it hasn’t come.

Jude Harris’s deft handling of Cabildo’s themes exemplifies how opera should engage in current social discourse – a feat of great skill in a medium that is not known for its ‘wokeness’. Here, female voices are not only strong onstage, but backstage too, which feels like a great beacon of hope for the future of opera.

★★★☆☆