Being Both

My third consecutive Brighton Festival event of the week was Being Both, which featured mezzo soprano Alice Coote along with the English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket (at the dreaded harpsichord). The music for the evening was all provided by George Frideric Handel in the form of a wide selection of arias from his operas and oratorios. It wasn’t just a concert, though. Alice Coote acted as well as sang, and various props and visual references supplemented her performance. There were also few extras who spent most of the show painting a slogan on a screen behind the orchestra: “You who are more than one thing, You who exceed expectations”. I added the comma myself.

When Handel was writing operas it was pretty typical for the heroic male lead to be played by a castrato, so these parts were scored for rather high voices. It was only much later in the history of opera that these roles became associated with tenor voices. The register in which a castrato would naturally sing is somewhere around that of a female contralto or mezzo soprano or a male counter-tenor. Modern stagings of Handel’s operas therefore tend to cast the leading make character either as a counter-tenor (male), as a “trouser role” for a female singer, or simply as a female character with no attempt to disguise the singer’s gender. The latter option can be extremely interesting as it allows the production to cast an interesting light on the way gender influences our preconceptions about character. In Being Both we saw Alice Coote singing some roles that were intended to be sung by male artists and others by female artists; since it was the person singing and “being” both it successfully blurred the distinction between these roles as well as poking a bit of fun at the dated attitudes represented in the texts.

The best part of the performance was Alice Coote. She has a gorgeous voice and commanded the stage in superb style. As for the English Concert, I was alarmed by some truly awful horn playing in the opening number, but the brass section wasn’t used at all after that and the remainder of the orchestra (mainly strings) played pretty well. It’s the “semi-staging” that troubled me most. The use of props was unsubtle and gimmicky and the overall feel of the production rather pretentious. I found the slow painting of the slogan behind the orchestra a distraction both from Alice Coote’s performance and for the music. It seemed to me to be saying “if you’re not enjoying the show why not watch some paint dry as an alternative?”

Wonderful artist though Alice Coote is, I did find myself wishing for a bit more variety in the vocal parts. Handel’s operas involve an enormous range of contrasts in different combinations of different voices. Hearing a series of excerpts all performed in the same register by the same artist robs the works of the dramatic interplay that makes Handel’s operas and oratiorios so special. I suppose that just tells you that I find an proper Opera a much more interesting experience than a string of arias performed out of context.

One Response to “Being Both”

  1. […] each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one […]

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