Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

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
). Accompanied by Harry
and the English
, Alice Coote sang arias from Handel’s Alcina,
Ariodante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Herculese, Messiah,
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

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.

image_description=Alice Coote [Photo by Ben Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Alice Coote [Photo by Ben Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]