Ovid and Handel at Brighton Early Music Festival 2019 - review

Apollo & Daphne and Semele
Apollo & Daphne and Semele

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

‘Ovid and Handel’ at Brighton Early Music Festival 2019 (BREMF), St Martin’s Church Lewes Rd, The BREMF Singers, director John Hancorn; The BREMF Players, leader Alison Bury.

Secular Handel (1685-1759) – Cantata: ‘Apollo e Dafne’ HMW 122 with Apollo, John Lee bass-baritone; Dafne, Elspeth Piggott soprano. Exerpts from ‘Semele’ HMV58 with Semele, Lucinda Cox soprano; Jupiter, Sebastian Maclaine tenor; Juno/Ino, Bethany Horak-Hallett mezzo-soprano.

It’s the first Saturday after a midweek Guy Fawkes Night in an age when celebrating the Gunpowder Plot discovery is a moveable November feast. It’s 7.30pm and a big fireworks display at The Level explodes into at least half an hour’s action.

Meanwhile, on the same eve of Remembrance Day, a few hundred yards away, in a concert starting at the same moment, English music’s favourite adopted German, George Friderick Handel, is also being celebrated. And in another towering BREMF church with the kind of reverberant acoustic that fireworks adore. The connection’s a giveaway. This must be a performance of Handel’s famous Music for the Royal Fireworks!

Actually, no – although the seed could well have been sown for that to happen on the same Saturday next year. What BREMF had planned was a sequence of instrumental and vocal items needing a bit of peace and quiet to be able to hear and follow. While the fireworks banged and boomed around outside and overhead, Ovid’s Metamorphosis played out on the floor inside with certain gods up to more of their mucking about.

Cocky Apollo, in slaying the monster scourge Python, declares himself archery champion. Not to be so ephemerally dethroned, the prolific Cupid unerringly targets him, sentencing Apollo to a doomed amorous of Dafne. Ultimately, the chaste nymph is famously protected by Diana, by transformation into an impregnable laurel tree.

In collusion with the apparent god of gunpowder, the anti-goddess of music has cast we audience into an over-generous acoustic which blurs busy decorative or contrapuntal music in the middle register especially on instruments. The bass-baritone and soprano soloists strove well, mainly below and above the problem area, to reach us with the narrative. And furthermore without the benefit of staging from which to sing across a nave of around 200 heads.

John Lee, rightly popular with BREMF audiences, is due in March to sing Proteo/Mars in Parnesso in Festa at the London Handel Festival. Here his Apollo engagingly moved from lusty presumption to resignation then contrition, as Elspeth Piggott doggedly fought Dafne’s rearguard action until Diana’s one-woman cavalry arrived.

Performance director John Hancorn wryly and conspiratorially then introduced the three acts of Semele exerpts, and ready again to add their weight to this music drama were the fine BREMF Singers and Alison Bury’s equally impressive BREMF Players, revelling in Handel’s inspirational scoring. And on that cake came icing.

The firework display expired and staging now raising singers stage left and right, three unhindered soloists came with their exciting precision of rhythm and strength in diction and projection. Entering with the seduced Semele’s ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ the tall, blonde, red-clad Lucinda Cox immediately hit the vocal ceiling with splendorous sound to bring us into an untrammelled new world and filling the building without a semblance of forcing power.

Next was Aussie tenor Sebastian Maclaine. [Why can’t their modern cricketers play the game with this beauty?] As Semele’s lover Jupiter, he entered with the beloved ‘Where’ere You Walk’ [their batsmen generally don’t ‘walk’] to make every listener feel on heavenly home ground [Lord’s, not Melbourne]. And mezzo Bethany Horak-Hallett as Jupiter’s resourceful betrayed wife Juno, made her fewer opportunities count, to complete the charm hat-trick.

Semele pays the price, persuaded by Juno to covet Jupiter’s deity, and so burned by Jupiter’s thunder and lightning (where were the accompanying fireworks now?). And the sole flaw in Cox’s performance was the final words of her dying recitative, too inaudibly delivered. But the arresting BREMF Chorus in ‘Oh terror and astonishment’ straightway restored the quality and likewise their final rejoicing at Bacchus’ birth from Semele’s ashes.

Apollo e Dafne had been a box office failure. Richard Wigmore’s chuckling programme notes revealed that the Lent 1744 premiere of Semele, outraged the unsuspecting devout and was pronounced ‘baudy’ by Messiah librettist Charles Jennens. The wrong sort of deities and art flying independent of religion. The scandalised hounded the hedonous Semele off the stage. After a London 1954 revival, opera audiences began craving it. The fire has taken hold and these BREMF exerpts will only have fuelled those flames of ardour.

Richard Amey