04 Sep 2015

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Alice Coote ’s late-night appearance at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 5 September 2015 was a version of her show Being Both with premiered at the Brighton Festival earlier this year (to mixed reviews, see Rupert Christiansen’s review on the Telegraph website ). Accompanied by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, Alice Coote sang arias from Handel’s Alcina, Ariodante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Herculese, Messiah, Semele and Theodora, with a staging directed by Susannah Waters with choreography by Christopher Tudor. It was billed as an exploration of gender and sexuality, based on the fact that as a female singer Alice Coote is asked to incarnate both male and female characters when singing roles in Handel operas and oratorios.

This is a potentially fascinating subject, but I am not sure that Alice Coote and Susannah Waters show actually enlightened us in any way. The stage action seems to have been simplified somewhat from the full show, which may go some way to explaining my puzzlement with the concept. Dressed all in black, with jacket and trousers, but looking every inch female, Alice Coote opened by singing a few lines from “Myself I shall adore” from Handel’s Semele, unaccompanied and transposed down somewhat. She followed this with an account of “Sta nell’Ircana” from Alcina performed stood on a box and accompanied by a gestural language which cropped up repeatedly in the show. These gestures seemed to be intended to be of significance, including as they did phallic gestures and whatever the opposite female gesture might be called. Frankly I found it puzzling and distracting.

The show continued in this vein, with a strong sense of a dramaturgical flow which I could not quite fathom, as if Alice Coote was telling a story which I could not grasp. Singing “He was despised” from Messiah whilst apparently lying in a bath, and playing with a razor seemed only one of the more puzzling elements. The result was a staging which seemed a little self-indulgent even if deeply felt, and this was not helped by the fact that Alice Coote’s musical performance was similarly idiosyncratic.

Tempos were often a bit wayward, and she has a tendency to pull the music about in a way which can seem rather old-fashioned (or refreshingly non-historically informed, depending on one’s point of view). There is no doubt of her strong technical command, but this is combined with a very idiosyncratic sense of style, so that some moments had me gasping with amazement whilst others induced profound annoyance. The audience, however, was clearly sympathetic in the main and the end of the 75 minute show was greeted with rapturous applause.

“Sta nell’Ircana” (Alcina) was beautifully, if lightly done with a lovely even tone even if some of the phrasing seemed slightly too 19th century in style for my taste and she was accompanied by some superb horn playing. “Resign thy club” (Hercules) was finely sung but as Alice Coote prowled around the stage her voice tended to come and go (always a problem in the Royal Albert Hall) and words disappeared, there was also a hint of unevenness in the passagework.

“Scherza infida” (Ariodante) was sung with a beautiful shape to the phrases and rich tone. It was deeply felt though this did mean that the tempo slowed somewhat. The bassoon obbligato was simply fabulous, with a lovely nutty tone. “Oh, that I on wings could rise” (Theodora) was sung with high bright tone, but the light intimate style of singing meant that it was not always well projected. This was one of a trio of soprano arias which Coote included in the show, demonstrating the wide range of her voice (though I have no knowledge of whether any transpositions were applied).

The orchestra got so show off their paces finely in the ballet music from Act 2 of Ariodante which concluded with Ginevra’s short yet dramatic recit. This led into the performance of “He was despised” (Messiah) referred to above, which was musically strong with lovely straight tone and strongly felt meaning, allied to the sort of tempo which Kathleen Ferrier would have been used to.

“Myself I shall adore”, the solo soprano aria from Semele, was finally sung in full though Alice Coote started this unaccompanied and the instruments gradually joined her. Any joy in the musical performance however, was distracted by the rather over dramatic use of a torch. This was followed by another soprano aria, “Se pieta” which is Cleopatra’s aria from Giulio Cesare. Rather annoyingly the programme said little about the inclusion of these soprano arias, though Cleopatra is a role that has been sung by Cecilia Bartoli.

“Dopo notte” from Ariodante was simply stunning in terms of the vocal control which Alice Coote showed, though starting the aria up-stage did mean that the opening was slightly rocky in terms of ensemble. Her performance was not the conventional bravura, even though all the notes were certainly there, but was quietly intense and internal. After all the virtuoso showing off, we finished with the quiet contemplation of “There, in myrtle shades” from Hercules with the solo cellist coming forward to sit next to Alice Coote on stage.

This show seemed rather like a missed opportunity; there is much to explore in the subject of gender, sexuality and Handel’s characters, but it did not feel as if these interesting questions were really being addressed. However, Alice Coote is never a boring performer and there was much to enjoy in this show. But I am not sure that the stage action contributed to our enjoyment of the arias and Coote’s personality is such that a simple concert performance would have been equally mesmerising, and possibly more vivid. She was accompanied throughout with discreet poise by Harry Bicket and the English Concert.

The Prom is available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Robert Hugill

Programme and performers:

Being Both: music from Handel’s Alcina, Ariodante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Hercules, Messiah, Semele and Theodora

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano). The English Concert; Harry Bicket (conductor). Susannah Waters (stage director); Christopher Tudor (movement director). BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall; 3 September 2015.