Prom 65: Being Both – Alice Coote sings Handel – Giulio Cesare, Semele, Hercules, Theodora, Messiah – with The English Concert and Harry Bicket

“A programme of arias from Handel’s operas, oratorios and cantatas – including Giulio Cesare, Semele, Hercules, Theodora, Messiah and Tra le fiamme – as a window on ‘being both’: the dilemmas and turbulent emotions experienced by both male and female characters.
“Few composers express emotion as directly or with greater psychological truth than Handel. British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote explores the full gamut of these emotions in a Late Night Prom featuring some of Handel’s greatest arias. Taking on both male and female roles, she delves into what it means to be a man, or a woman, in Handel’s world of sorceresses and knights, kings and queens. She is joined in her theatrical journey by regular collaborators and period-performance specialists Harry Bicket and The English Concert.” [BBC Proms website]

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Susannah Waters – Stage Director
Christopher Tudor – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Alice Coote performs arias by Handel with The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket at the BBC Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIt is a sign of the ever-growing popularity of Handel’s music among concert- and opera-goers that a sequence of familiar and unfamiliar numbers from his stage-works is not only regarded as suitable fare for a Prom, but that it is deemed worthy of being moulded into a fully-fledged dramatic presentation. I am not sure that the gestures and mimes amounted to very much in most cases here, but it was short-sighted of the BBC not to record this concert for subsequent televised broadcast to allow those not present in the Royal Albert Hall to see this production and make up their own minds. There is no question that Handel deserves such exposure.

Even so, the versatility of Alice Coote’s singing in this eclectic selection will have given those who could only hear the spectacle a vivid experience of the diverse art of her vocal accomplishment as well as of Handel’s musical genius. She began by giving a solo incipit on “Myself I shall adore”, alluding to the self-adulatory aria from Semele (which was given in full later in the concert) in a surprisingly chaste and well-behaved rendition (though a spotlight played teasing games with Coote’s figure). For all the narcissism of that number, its inclusion as an opening motto was presumably (and rightly) designed to draw attention to Handel’s astute and inexhaustible ability to adumbrate the multi-faceted aspects of a human individual’s complex psychological make-up.

Several of the arias in this selection have to do with the dynamics and politics of sexual love – realised, for example, in Coote’s goading acting in the taunting and sarcastic ‘Resign thy Club’ addressed by a jealous Dejanira to Hercules; or in the nuanced outpouring of grief in Ariodante’s sublime ‘Scherza infida’, at first a private expression of sorrow, and then in the da capo repeat an almost choked sense of disgust at Ginevra’s apparent faithlessness.

Alice Coote performs arias by Handel with The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket at the BBC Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouBut no two numbers deal with exactly the same emotional state and Coote evinced a different vocal disposition for each one. There was a noble fervour expressed in the anguish of Cleopatra’s ‘Se pietà’, and the dramatic contrast effected between the pure, simple delivery of Theodora’s prayer ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise’ and the preceding ‘Scherza infida’ was masterly. It was only a slight disappointment that the two triumphant numbers – ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ from Alcina, and Ariodante’s ‘Dopo notte’ – were not more extrovert, though Coote did build up somewhat greater joy in the recapitulation of the latter.

It was a dramatic masterstroke to follow the sad exploration of human cruelty in the restrained but also somehow intensely dignified account of ‘He was despised’ (Messiah) with the ultimately tragic self-love of Semele’s ‘Myself I shall adore’. Insightful, too, was the idea of ending the sequence with the raptly simple ‘There, in myrtle shades’ where Dejanira laconically and ruefully expounds her hope to join Hercules in Elysium on hearing false news of the latter’s death. The directness of Handel’s expression belies the complexity of the dramatic situation where Dejanira will soon bring both her and Hercules’s downfall through her destructive jealousy, demonstrating the ambivalent layers of emotion and meaning that Handel often invests his arias.

Alice Coote performs arias by Handel with The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket at the BBC Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe accompaniments by The English Concert under Harry Bicket’s direction were serviceable rather than inspired, with a few notable exceptions. The effect of Cupid’s whining, referred to in ‘Resign thy club’, was caught by the strings’ descending glissandos, and the ensemble’s studied renderings in ‘He was despised’ and ‘Scherza infida’ enhanced their concentrated atmosphere. But elsewhere the players did not manage to follow Coote so closely into the finely honed emotional worlds she created. Or, in the instance of the ballet numbers from Ariodante, the character of each piece was correctly evoked technically, but without essential vitality.

In most cases, therefore, I felt as Colley Cibber is said to have done when asked about many a younger dramatist’s new work: “It failed to coerce m’ passions.” For it is at a tenderising, visceral level that Handel’s music has the undoubted capacity to appeal (which Coote certainly demonstrated) as compared with the more cerebral dimension of his contemporary, J. S. Bach.

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