Andreas Scholl The Renaissance Muse

The Renaissance Muse [Co-commissioned by the Barbican Centre and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts: European Premiere]

Andreas Scholl (countertenor)
Laila Robins (speaker)
Crawford Young (lute/acoustic guitar)
Stacey Shames (harps)

Mark Lamos – director
James F. Ingalls – lighting designer
Jane Greenwood – costume designer
Anne Cattaneo – dramaturg

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 10 February, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Certainly the potential’s there: to create a genuinely compelling narrative (or at least a stimulating ‘dialogue’) through the juxtaposition of song and verse drawn from both English Renaissance and folk sources, and then to articulate it in a dramatic context where lighting, props, costumes and movement serve both to homogenise and analyse the material in an intelligent and intelligible fashion.

But, sadly, this presentation at the Barbican Hall fell far short of realising that potential, with the production as a whole merely serving to distance the audience (as a whole) by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Yes, that terrible beast ‘dumbing down’ was abroad in the land, comprising lurid ‘60s costumes, inappropriate camping-up and innuendo, tremendous over-acting and simplistic inferences in order to force connections. And yet…

The night was saved in a most unexpected fashion, three-quarters of the way through, by Scholl’s masterfully simple interpretations of the folksongs! Would that he had applied the same beautiful understatement and subtle shading (and he was, it has to be said, in fine voice throughout most of the evening) which allowed the power of both the melodies and the stories to come through untarnished, to the equally unadorned songs of Thomas Campion or the ostensibly more complex works of John Dowland.

Wonderful performances of anonymous masterpieces like “Waly waly”, “Black is the Colour”, “She Moved through the Fair” and “I Loved a Lass” beautifully offset the interspersed verse by Michael Drayton, John Lyly, Shakespeare and Orlando Gibbons to great effect (although here as elsewhere the audience showed its general contempt for the poetry by taking the opportunity to cough their lungs out – more geese than swans indeed!) – and serving only to highlight the poverty of the rest of the programme.

Actress Laila Robins’s delivery of the poems was a little overdone, definitely of the old school, although her physical interaction with both Scholl and the other musicians was graceful and largely free from ‘histrionics’. Crawford Young’s playing was excellent, whether accompanying Scholl (his turn on the steel-string guitar was really very fine) or duetting with harpist Stacey Shames (as in the opening “My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome”), who for her part was discreet and tasteful, both as an accompanist and presence. The set was pseudo-oriental, with lots of Persian rugs and cushions – silly but at least minimal; the lighting was well orchestrated, with colours carefully chosen to match the prevailing mood of each sequence.

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