sat 20/07/2024

Prom 65: Coote, English Concert, Bicket | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 65: Coote, English Concert, Bicket

Prom 65: Coote, English Concert, Bicket

Gender trouble at the Proms for Alice Coote and Handel

Some fantastic singing, shame about a staging that traps Alice Coote in conceptual sillinessChris Christodoulou

What was a stunningly good Alice Coote recital doing trapped inside an A-level Theatre Studies project? I’m not sure that Being Both – the semi-staged sequence of Handel arias originally commissioned by the Brighton Festival – ever came close to answering, but by about ten minutes in the singing was just so damn good that I stopped worrying and learned, if not precisely to love, then to tolerate the foolishness going on around the music.

In case the title wasn’t clue enough, Being Both is the kind of earnest, self-referential exploration of gendered experience (so delicately inverted and subverted in Handel’s girls-who-play-boys-who-kiss-girls trouser roles) you’d usually find staged in a fringe theatre with a sticky floor and an audience full of people carrying copies of Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva.

Apparently it took both a stage director (Susannah Waters) and a movement director (Christopher Tudor) to come up with the cavorting, gurning, flapping, crotch-grabbing and possibly masturbating (we were too far away to be certain) that made up the physical accompaniment to some of Handel’s best operatic arias, adding a bizarre visual pantomime to scenes from Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, Messiah and Alcina among others.

This was a five-star concert in a one-star stagingPlaying not only the man but also the woman (Cleopatra, Dejanira, Semele), Coote was, unusually, able to explore that duality, something she did with beautiful subtlety in her vocal characterisation. While it was hard to warm to the extreme colours of the self-parodying Dejanira, Coote’s Semele was all poised sensuality and grace, her light-footed lovemaking set against the mature tragedy of Cleopatra’s exquisite "Se Pietà" – the one moment in the opera where this flighty seductress borrows all the sober gravitas of Cornelia.

Sitting somewhere between the genders, a moment of sexless pathos, was "He was despised" from Messiah. Despite the bath tub setting (why?), Coote’s simplicity of delivery and the range of colour she found in this static and low-lying aria were extraordinary, letting the voice and the delicate psychology of Handel’s melody do the work.

Over on the XY side of the evening we had Ruggiero’s cantering "Sta nell’Ircana" from Alcina (with the added bonus of some gloriously dirty horn-playing from the English Concert) and the two magnificent alto arias from Ariodante – "Dopo Notte" and "Scherza Infida". The latter was beautifully paced by Coote and conductor Harry Bicket, giving plenty of space to the plangent solo bassoon (surely there’s no better solo for the instrument in baroque opera?), while the former was a slow-burn fury. Starting slow and deliberately underplaying things, Coote drove the aria to a frenzied coloratura climax, working a disappointingly spare crowd up to serious excitement.

The concert could easily have ended there, but Coote has one final dramatic card to play, pulling us back into the intimate cello-and-voice duet that makes up the bulk of the exquisite "There, in myrtle shades" from Hercules. Trading musical confidences with the English Concert's magnificent cellist Joseph Crouch, Coote sang simply and straightforwardly, finding an emotional directness that had been lacking amongst all the affected stage business of the previous hour.

This was a five-star concert in a one-star staging, but somehow Coote’s energy and bravery managed to carry the day.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

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