tue 16/07/2019

Being Both, Coote, English Concert, Bicket, Brighton Dome | reviews, news & interviews

Being Both, Coote, English Concert, Bicket, Brighton Dome

Being Both, Coote, English Concert, Bicket, Brighton Dome

Fascinating programme and ravishing delivery undermined by symbolic bric-a-brac

Alice Coote: singing of rare and exquisite quality undermined by bizarre stage props

Over the past decade Alice Coote has emerged as a singer of rare and exquisite vocal quality. Even when the direction of a project is questioned, there has generally been consensus that she generally sounds gorgeous. The concept of Being Both, a juxtaposition of Handel mezzo arias for both male and female characters, is brilliant both musically and commercially. It allows a fascinating exploration of identity and sexuality in a period when both, in opera, were pretty fluid; and it makes, conveniently, for a programme of Handel’s greatest hits.

It’s unfortunate that according to director Susannah Waters’ notes, the idea was inspired by one of opera’s less endearing episodes, the insensitive description last year by a gentleman of the press of mezzo Tara Erraught – playing Strauss’s Octavian – as a “chubby bundle of puppy fat”. Fortunately, the issue of physical appearance and body image was given less prominence than the more interesting question of gender identity as expressed musically. Though Coote’s outfit is bizarrely accessorised (of which, more later), the basic attire of gender-nonspecific black jeans and shirt suppresses any obvious gender identification, all the better to concentrate on the music.  

The programme gave full scope to Coote’s expressive power. From the swashbuckling Ruggiero (Alcina), to the boyish Ariodante, the voluptuous Semele and Cleopatra, the desperate Theodora, distressed Ginevra (Ariodante) and demure Dejanira (Hercules), with a digression into oratorio narrative for “He Was Despised” from Messiah, all varieties of emotion were explored, religious as well as romantic.

The point, if such a crude thing could emerge from such uniformly ravishing music, was that passion, sorrow and lust sound pretty similar expressed by man or woman; and religious sorrow can sound much like romantic abandonment. Gender colouring, such as there was, came more from the orchestral parts: the jaunty, energetic strings and pooping horns accompanying Ruggiero are more macho than the desolate wailing bassoon of Ariodante’s “Scherza infida” or the passionately heaving string phrases of Cleopatra’s “Se pietà”, for example, though that is as much a question of dramatic context as it is gender.   

For much of the show, the musical riches were overwhelming. Coote’s voice has a kind of double layering, enabling her to project with some force while, seemingly simultaneously decorating the edge of even a robust note with the height of a phrase, then retreat to a fluttering delicacy immediately. This was particularly effective during Semele’s dizzy “Myself I shall adore”, though it’s a versatile tool: the subtlety with which, for example, the word “despised” slipped from a hiss to a sigh was delicious.

Coote resembled a semiotician’s model as she dangled peculiar symbols around her neck

The Brighton Dome is a large and not obviously sympathetic space for a concert whose predominant mood was intimacy. The English Concert, under Harry Bicket, matched Coote step-for-step during the more vivacious passages, and the delicate solos – the bassoon of “Scherza infida” for example – were also exquisitely phrased and beautifully pure, but on occasion felt rather underpowered when playing piano. (The Old Market would perhaps have been better suited to the repertoire.)

The universality of emotion, expressed so delicately by the music, was, however, hammered home by the set and direction with quite un-Handelian clumsiness. For the entire concert actors were painting the phrase “You who are more than one thing / You who exceed expectations” on a wall behind the orchestra, as if that idea were not conveyed with infinitely greater subtlety by the music. At one point Coote herself joined the decorating crew’s graffiti team; her letters dribbled horribly. It’s just as well she won’t need to give up her musical career, because her handicraft skills are unpromising. At another moment, a ballerina in pink tutu (redundant after Ginevra's dream ballet sequence) joined the decorating crew. Even for Brighton...

Meanwhile, in front of the orchestra, there was a baffling assortment of bric-a-brac with which Coote was obliged to toy. The spinning wheel, breastplate and plastic wings made some dramatic sense, though weren’t really necessary. But the empty bath, in which Coote sang most of “He was despised”? Or the portable blackboard, seemingly purloined from a mackerel fisherman on the seafront, on which a series of daft slogans were written, and which for some time Coote wore around her neck, standing on top of a plinth? For several songs Coote resembled a semiotician’s model as she dangled peculiar symbols around her neck. It was most distracting, and gave the evening a perspective on both the most exciting and the most exasperating features of the contemporary operatic scene, as some ravishingly sung and intriguingly programmed pieces were, to some extent, undermined by facile sloganising.

The point, if such a crude thing could emerge from such uniformly ravishing music, was that passion, sorrow and lust sound pretty similar expressed by man or woman

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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