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Out of her mouth review – French biblical cantatas given a contemporary context

out of her mouth

Carolyn Sampson, Alys Roberts & Anna Dennis (Photo: Khris Cowley for Here & Now)

Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s music: written by a woman, about women, for women.

Anna Dennis, Alys Roberts & Carolyn Sampson (Photo: Khris Cowley for Here & Now)

The short, solo cantata (with the soloist being both protagonist and narrator) was a popular form in France in the early decades of the 18th century, and there are any number of these on both sacred and classical subjects by the likes of Clérambault, Rameau and Montéclair. Given the patriarchal society of the period, and the tendency – until quite recently – of historical research to be dominated by men, it is a surprise and delight to discover that Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665–1729) was not only honoured in her time (she was employed as composer and performer at Louis XIV’s court), but that her works were published and are available to us in this century.

Three of the cantatas from her first set (published in 1708) took Old Testament women as their subjects, and were written for women to sing: Jacob et Rachel, Susanne, and Judith, and in a brilliant collaborative project by Mahogany Opera, Dunedin Consort and HERA, these three were presented by Spitalfields Music Festival as not only a highly enjoyable hour’s music and drama, but as a strong contemporary feminist statement.

The sopranos Anna Dennis, Alys Roberts and Carolyn Sampson took the leads for Susanne, Rachel and Judith respectively, with four members of Dunedin Consort providing the first-rate instrumental accompaniment that, in a precisely mannered account, captured well the fusion of French and Italian styles prevalent when de la Guerre was writing. While, originally, these cantatas would have been performed as standalone, undramatised items, under Mathilde Lopez’ adroit direction, and singing the text in a pithy modern English translation, the three women were presented as supportive ‘sisters’ in a seamless account, each telling their story, with the other two providing reaction to the narrative, the whole production being essentially a presentation of the casual cruelty of oppression of women by men – both in biblical times and now. The set was minimalist, but effective: a platform on scaffolding (with the instrumentalists at the back) had on it a bare minimum of props; large rolls of the sort of blue absorbent paper used in hospitals formed a backdrop, onto which were projected moving images and the words being sung; these also became wedding garlands, Holofernes’ tent, and cleaning materials. Before each cantata one of the performers quoted a section from the UN’s 1967 ‘Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ and, described the scene – an ingenious device that not only set context, but provided commentary for those with visual impairment.

“…it is a surprise and delight to discover that Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s…  works were published and are available to us in this century”

Alys Roberts & members of Dunedin Consort (Photo: Khris Cowley for Here & Now)

Anna Dennis recounted Susanna’s story of being the subject of voyeurism and gaslighting by a couple of ‘respectable’ Elders, her trial for alleged adultery, and her subsequent victory – her ‘Keep your laws off my body’ t-shirt reminding us that women are still often not treated equally under the law. Dennis’ adaptable voice – part rich, part edgy – was perfect for the role, allowing her to imitate the pushy flirting of the Elders in one aria, yet turn to a more nervous, self-doubting tone for ‘What a reckless move’ before her trial.

In Genesis we are told that Jacob and Rachel fell in love, but that, in an act of cruel, casual patriarchy, Rachel’s father Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for Rachel at the wedding. Laban’s response to Jacob’s outrage is that he can always have Rachel as his second, less important, wife. Alys Roberts portrayed Rachel as a confused, tearful, downtrodden character, in whom we could nonetheless see a hint of anger. Her sweet, bell-like voice brought just the right amount of innocence to her pre-wedding aria ‘Come dearest wish’, but she applied an appositely steely edge to it for the sarcastic recitative ‘He knows what’s best for his little girls’, and the busy aria ‘Rarely life our wishes granted’.

Those of us who know the story of Judith and Holofernes could see exactly what was going to happen to the watermelons that were brought on stage. Judith, to save her nation, seduces the enemy general Holofernes, and while he is in a drunken stupor, beheads him with his own sword. Carolyn Sampson brought both the creaminess and power of her voice to a bravura portrayal, deploying a sarcastic edge for the recitative ‘Hurry, someone make him shut up’, a little unsteadily drunken portamento for ‘He’s closing his eyes’, the quietest pianissimo for ‘It is time’, and a triumphant full-on tone for ‘She strikes the fatal blow’ and the triple time ‘Sing and dance and be glad in the power we had’. All three women – Rachel gaining confidence from her companions – despatched the watermelons with a baseball bat, echoing, in action, Judith’s final aria ‘Take the chance to be free’.

• Details of the Spitalfields Music Festival 2023 can be found here.

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