Sunday 6 September 2015

Return to gender: Alice Coote at the Proms

There's nothing like booking your holiday right in the middle of Proms season to make you feel detached from the whole affair. Seemingly weeks' worth of concerts, broadcasts and highlights have flown past me, mocking my attempts to even vaguely catch up. That said - given the tiny number of Proms I have managed to get to, I think I've been extraordinarily lucky with my choices.

One gig in particular reminded me just how adventurous, unusual and even intimate the Proms can be: mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's late-night performance of Handel arias, supported by Harry Bicket and the English Concert. At first glance, this was a perfectly logical piece of programming: the 'tour of the album' - that is, the magnificent CD from the same team, issued by Hyperion Records last autumn.

(Photo from BBC website, copyright Benjamin Ealovega)

Well, as it turned out, not quite. The evening had a name - 'Being Both' - and focused on the particular position held in opera by AC and her fellow mezzos of playing both male and female roles. (These male parts sung by women are often called 'trouser' or 'breeches' roles. I'm aware that linking voice type to role gender is a much wider and more complex exercise. For example, Mozart and Strauss both wrote male roles for soprano. Equally, some roles performed by women now were previously performed by male 'castrati' - rather putting Brando or de Niro's ideas of 'method acting' into perspective - and perhaps the male countertenor voice is a natural successor to some of these. But for the purpose of this concert, we are talking about the mezzo voice being the right fit for roles of both sexes in Handel.)

AC is sometimes referred to as 'specialising' in trouser roles, but I think that's actually misleading - what's really meant, surely, is as the concert title suggests, she's equally adept at both. She's certainly an accomplished chameleon in fully-staged productions (as the YouTube clip below shows).

But even in recitals, she challenges concert-dress stereotypes, often performing in trouser suits - and the occasional magnificent cape - supporting a kind of androgynous image in its truest sense, somehow combining elements of both genders, 'sexful' rather than sexless. Although its protaganist is male, Schubert's 'Winterreise' has (rightly) been tackled by singers of both sexes and all voices: AC's live recording at the Wigmore Hall is a modern classic because of her compelling range of emotion and sense of drama - listen to her cover the lot in the commanding dynamics of 'Die Post':

So, it's hard to imagine anyone else cutting quite so cool and understated a figure as AC does when taking the Royal Albert Hall stage. Head to toe in black shirt, jacket, trousers and flats, hair tied back, her appearance betrays no clues about what we'll hear, and in what order. Sparse props - a few blocks, a set of steps and an iPad - give nothing away, either. Then the music starts, and what we get for the next 75 minutes or so is akin to an acting/singing masterclass.

The programme departed to some extent from the tracks on the Hyperion album: 'Being Both' is very much its own thing. (I should add that it wasn't even a 'Promiere' - it made its debut in a similar part-staged presentation in Brighton earlier in the year.) Cleverly, AC has assembled the aria choices to make not exactly a 'song cycle' nor a 'suite' - but a sequence that now exists as a unified whole in its own right. It almost feels superfluous to mention how beautifully AC sang - she is so experienced in Handel and meets the demands of Baroque opera head-on with a rich and passionate tone - but it's important to state how charismatically she performed. I loved the 'live-ness' of it - moving around the stage in her various personas, she was able to 'sing at' various parts of the audience so, while I could hear her clearly at all times, her sound changed slightly depending on where she was, and what she was having to do. This made me, and most of the audience I believe, feel involved in some way and helped generate the intimacy I mentioned earlier.

The staging was extraordinarily low-key ... which again, I rather liked. (I did wonder on the way to the gig if we would actually get lots of costume changes - NOW I'M A MAN! AND NOW A WOMAN! - which didn't seem like AC's style at all but I couldn't begin to guess what she would actually do.) Instead, the minimal 'coups de theatre' paid off due to the restraint elsewhere: one block was transformed into a bath for a performance of 'He was despised' from the 'Messiah', casting a completely new light on the text and sung by AC while wet shaving! 'Myself I shall adore' from 'Semele' carried a twinge of ambivalence and regret, as AC shone torchlight on her face in the gloom, as if reading a ghost story.

As a result, I think the staging brought out the extent to which this is an 'autobiographical' show. As AC covers in the programme note, Handel had no 'problem' with gender and was primarily concerned with finding the best voice to bring humanity to the character. But for this concert - in spite of the wide range of characters represented - it's the same voice, the same person bringing to life both heroes and heroines, through singing and movement alone. With no onstage distraction, AC could communicate sensuality, singing and writhing on a block-bed, to machismo - brilliantly illustrated in an extra layer of gender-crossing through the aria 'Resign thy club' from 'Hercules', where the title character's wife Dejanira spitefully sends up his masculinity (or potential lack of it). AC has written fascinatingly about what it's like 'being both' and this recital seems to be an ideal way to bring those experiences to life in performance.

I also felt that the concert's nods to the modern era - not just the sober garb but the intriguing use of the iPad as a prop, as if to 'dial up' or trigger the next character - neatly encompassed two points. First, it admirably underlined that gender neutral/binary concepts or wider sex/sexuality/gender issues - certainly hot topics in our age - are ideas that, depending on your point of view, we have been comfortable about, or struggling with, for centuries.

Secondly, it made AC one of the band. Presenting herself far more in line with the rest of her players than as the 'star', she moved around the orchestra, shared the spotlight with a fine cellist, and finally melted into the musicians' throng to take her bows until they - justifiably - brought her forward.

75 minutes or so of sublime music would be excellent enough - but this is a brave and intriguing idea, eccentric in the very best sense, and something I could only imagine this particular artist creating and carrying off. I hope I get to see Alice Coote perform it again - and that she comes up with even more fascinating programmes that take us that little bit further into the performer's psyche.

In the meantime, you should definitely order the Handel Arias CD (or download) if you don't have it: here's a link to buy from Hyperion directly (warning - suggest you browse Hyperion's site when feeling reasonably flush!). And the audio of the Prom performance will be available here until roughly the end of September.

Post-script: I tweeted after the concert that there should be some kind of film or DVD production of it - and I stand by that. I was genuinely a bit amazed that the BBC cameras weren't in there to capture it this time. I don't want a Hollywood production number - that would be entirely against the spirit - but I think the sheer range of what AC communicates through voice and movement should be recorded for posterity. (It's not as if there's no precedent - Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake made a properly-filmed 'Winterreise' - and Warner Classics have clearly felt there's enough current interest to re-release it as part of a compilation of Bostridge's Schubert song cycles. If you're intrigued, look here.) So, how about it? Hyperion? The BBC?