Alice Coote is surely one of the most consistently strong mezzo-sopranos on the circuit today. I certainly cannot recall an occasion when she had an off-night, threw in a dud note or seemed to have her mind elsewhere.
On this evening, which marked the 99th ‘birthday’ of Benjamin Britten and begins a three week festival of the composer at the Wigmore, she was in typically fine form, although only part of the evening was devoted to her. This was a night in which the Britten Sinfonia had many opportunities to shine in its own right under the directorship of violinist Jacqueline Shave, as it also performed music from Purcell, Handel and Tippett.
Coote’s own contribution reached its zenith in a performance of Britten’s cantata Phaedra Op. 93 of 1975. Utilising excerpts from Robert Lowell’s English translation of the Jean Racine masterpiece, Britten sets four of Phaedra’s key speeches to music, compensating for the gaps created in the ‘plot’ by setting the work in a closely unified musical structure. As always, Coote thoroughly utilised her dark, resonant and full voice in a variety of ways to capture Phaedra’s state of mind as she moves from declaring her love for Hippolytus to accepting that death is the only consequence of this.
The vocal timbre could be altered from note to note allowing for an attention to detail that could see every new line, word or even syllable introduce further levels of meaning. For example, in the first Recitative when Phaedra describes catching sight of Hippolytus on her wedding day, the pure, high richness in sound on the word ‘altar’ in the final line captured Phaedra’s sense of possessed adoration. Similarly, Coote ended the Recitative to Oenone, when Phaedra accepts her fate proclaiming ‘Death to the unhappy’s no catastrophe’, by placing her voice in perfect accord with the solo cello accompaniment.
In the first half of the concert, Coote delivered three arias from Alcina. Although all are sung by Ruggiero, they gave ample opportunity for her to demonstrate a wide range of emotions. The highlight was the performance of ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ where Ruggiero is torn between taking the easy, but defeatist, way out and being the hero that he truly is. This was a model demonstration of how the same words can be handed such varied meanings when delivered differently. Initially, Coote’s expression of being ‘unsure whether to run or await the hunter’ revealed a deep, disturbing dilemma for the character. The final rendition of the verse, however, presented exactly the same words to summarise a triumphant decision that had already been reached.
As befits the fact that opera featured so prominently in the output of all four featured composers, there was something theatrical about the overall presentation of the evening. Coote came to the centre of the stage at the start of the concert and stood statuesque for the whole of the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazar Suite, while the Britten Sinfonia brought a rich vibrancy to the piece. Then after Coote performed Purcell’s ‘Let the night perish’ as realised by Nico Muhly, she exited the stage as the lower strings struck up for ‘Dido’s Lament’. This was because she wasn’t needed for Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral version, but since the aria represents the dying words of a tragic heroine, to witness ‘Dido’s’ exit at the start felt poetically appropriate.
This version was interesting because it captured the same intensity of feeling as it does when possessing a heart wrenching vocal line by layering the strings over each other in such a straight forward, yet intense, manner. This represented just one of the Britten Sinfonia’s many triumphs in an evening that also included Britten’s Prelude and Fugue Op. 29, which premiered at Wigmore Hall in 1943, and Tippett’s wondrous Little Music for Strings.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on iPlayer for a week.
The Britten Birthday Centenary series continues at the Wigmore until 14 December.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org