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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night

Barbarian Opera

Genre: Music, One Person Show, Opera and Operatic Theatre

Venue: Greenside


Low Down

British soprano Rosie Rowell takes us through a whole gamut of emotions in her interpretation of Dominick Argento’s short but intense solo opera. Skilfully and with much clarity accompanied by Scottish pianist Kristine Donnan.


The late US American composer Dominick Argento wrote Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night as a one-act monodrama in 1981, based on his 1979 opera Miss Havisham’s Fire, which itself was based on Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.

The flyers, stained and half-burnt wedding invitations for Matthew Compeyson and Aurelia Havisham, set the scene for what is to come. As we walk in, we see a woman seemingly asleep on the floor. She is dressed in a torn nightie and stained robe. She wears a long wedding veil, which covers half the stage. It was once very beautiful, but now clearly shows signs of neglect and age. It is draped over a recorked bottle of wine that stands proudly in the middle of discarded letters, also showing their age.

Over the next forty minutes, Rowell uses these props very thoughtfully. Especially the veil comes to prominence. It gets twisted around her, gets dropped, gets put back into her hair, and it becomes a defensive shield or a comfort blanket as the need requires.

Miss Havisham herself steps in and out of sanity. She is fully conscious of the fact, makes conscious choices, choices to comfort herself. Taking us along on her journey, she talks to us and acknowledges us. We, the audience, however, never know whether we are actually there or also just a figment of Miss Havisham’s imagination.

We are witnesses when she bemoans the patriarchy and what it demands from and does to women. We are there when she relives her wedding morning, and we are there when she questions her own behaviour after she was stood up. Could she have changed her fate, like she has seen other women do?

The original opera was designed for the coloratura soprano Beverly Sills, and it is not surprising that Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night retains some coloratura elements. Rowell has a full-bodied lyrical soprano that suits the score well. Yet her voice is also flexible and easily manages the coloratura elements, singing them clearly and distinctly. The score asks for frequent semitone scales and pianissimo above the stave, both of which Rowell executes expertly. It is a pleasure to watch how easy she makes it look. Her voice really shines in the more hefty passages that sit in the middle range of her voice. Here she displays a voluptuousness that hints at a Verdi spinto or maybe at a Wagner Eva or even Elsa in the future. I would love to hear her now as a Fiordiligi.

There are several sections in this opera that require a speaking voice that can project, which seems to be no challenge for Rowell. The soprano is a consummate actor with vivid facial expressions. Even when she sings difficult passages, her face is relaxed and stays in the role. It is a pleasure to sit this close to the performer and being able to catch every nuance of her interpretation. Her incredibly good diction also helps us to follow the story. We really live the story through Miss Havisham’s eyes.

The score for this opera is not easy. Although Argento did not follow the route of his contemporaries, this opera is distinctively modern. Looking at recent developments, I wonder if one could describe it as foreshadowing. Some sections show a clear melody, while others are bi-tonal. The music is never weird or off-putting; at times it can even be described as upbeat. For the audience, it is very easy to fall into its soundscape and go along with it. It struck me halfway through the performance how well this work would sit in a double bill with Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine.

The piano part is played precisely and with passion by Scottish pianist Kristine Donnan. It leaves a lot of space for the voice in the first half of the opera. Often Miss Havisham sings a cappella. The music alternates quickly between an organ and a piano, set up at 90-degree angles. Donnan switches between both instruments without missing a beat. At a very dramatic point in the middle of the opera, the piano becomes an outward expression of Miss Havisham’s inner turmoil. Donnan puts her all into this solo section and plays with deep feeling and understanding. We women, we all have a bit of Miss Havisham in us.

It was not surprising that this exciting and compelling performance enticed some audience members to whoop at the end. Definitely a must-see show at the Fringe this year.