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Brisbane Baroque Festival 2016 reviews

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Music in the Castle of Heaven, the opening concert was called, and although it was dedicated to the music of Poppa Bach, the title fitted almost everything I saw, with one sad exception, an embarrassing production of Purcell’s deservedly little-known semi-opera, King Arthur, to the even littler-known text by John Dryden, about which the less said the better. And as for the costumes!

But to greater, magnificent things, like the aforesaid opening concert, Bach in the Castle of Heaven, with the QSO and the Australian Voices conducted by one of the great hopes of the next generation of Australian-British conductors, the sprightly, charming, energetic Jessica Cottis.

She had the performers in the palm of her hand, as she urged, excited and danced them though of some of the greatest music ever written, what Beecham might have called Bach’s Lollypops, for every piece was well-known and well-loved, and each was greeted with delighted recognition by the audience.

Sure, it was the Bach hit parade, but what’s wrong with that, because each piece is deservedly well-known and beloved, and there are some things you can never get too much of, like the orchestral suite No 3, and the chorus from cantata BWV 80, A mighty fortress is our God.

I had a new and strangely invigorating experience, because having forgotten to pick up a program before the first half, I sat there not knowing what to expect, but found every item a familiar joy, even to the best thing Bach never wrote, Bist du bei mir, which I’m having sung at my funeral.

The full program, which I acquired at interval, alerted me to more treasures to come, like the Kyrie and Dona Nobis Pacem from the B minor mass, the latter shattering in its ironic thundering crescendos, and the aria known in church circles as The Butcher’s Funeral Anthem (Sheep may safely graze), from Cantata 208.

Everything you ever loved about Bach was there, and would have converted even the most dedicated rock head to his music. And exquisite soloists, too, Greta Bradman, Nicholas Scott (UK), Ioana Tache (Belgrade/Australia), Kristian Winther (Australia) and Brisbane’s own Christopher Wrench on organ and harpsichord – what more could you want? Perfect title for a perfect concert, and it set the scene for nine days of the music of the spheres – and there are still two days to go.

It was Alfred Deller who revived the counter-tenor voice in the 1950s. The voice has proved more and more popular, and another concert at this festival demonstrated what a wide-ranging voice type it is. Here we had Australia’s Russell Harcourt, with his light, high, almost soprano-type tones; Owen Willetts from the UK with a voice that sometimes threw itself down almost to a baritone sound; and world favourite Italian Carlo Vistoli, with a middle range that could shoot both up and down in a way that was super-dramatic and quite astonishing.

They sang as individuals rather than in duets or trios, to allow the range of their separate voices to shine, so it was a lesson in diversity for those who thought the counter-tenor was a one-dimensional voice. Lots of Handel, of course, quite a bit of Vivaldi, some Johann Hasse and a rare piece by Nicola Porpora called Alto Giovi, interesting as a contrast but not quite as engaging. Australia’s own Orchestra of the Antipodes was energetically directed from the harpsichord by Erin Helyard, and added another level of joy.

It was another stand-out, standing-ovation recital, which shows yet again that Brisbane is no longer the city of musical bogans. Silly Tasmania, to give away this festival two years ago, and allow Brisbane to have it for the next three years.

The grand hit so far has been Handel’s Agrippina, first performed in 1709, and cemented his reputation for ever. The plot is as ridiculous as most 17th century operatic plots, with a coy libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani about Agrippina’s attempts to get rid of her ancient bumbling second husband Clau-Clau-Claudius (or Clavdivs if you ever saw the television series with Derek Jacobi), and replace him with her son by her first marriage, the evil Nero.

How much of it is true I don’t know, because my scant knowledge of the Caesars comes from the Roman author Suetonius (in translation of course), but it didn’t matter. Four and a quarter hours of sublimity on so many levels, and a fine line of irony in the production values from director Laurence Dale, set designer Tom Schenk (it’s all done with mirrors, you know), and outrageously naughty costumes by Robby Duiveman – Nero (counter-tenor Russell Harcourt) comes on as a high-camp schoolboy in a red and gold blazer, red knee socks and golden sneakers, while Ross Ramgobin as Pallante, one of Agrippina’s courtiers, flaunts a long pale-blue flowing train behind his pantaloons. And Agrippina’s (Ulrike Schneider, pictured above) metres-long black silk cloak billows out behind her as if generated by a body fan – spectacular!

This could all be very silly, but the music of Handel, in this opera rarely seen before by most of the audience, showed once again the genius of Handel, and all the soloists were faultless. As for the set, doing it with mirrors in this case was a stroke of genius, as two double-sided mirror flats moved around the stage to create four different rooms reflecting a single column and a massive curule (those curved x-shaped Roman chairs – I had to look it up) in all kinds of combinations and permutations.

So far, so magnificent, and there are still two days to go – a free public talk today (Friday) at the Cremorne Theatre called The Castrati – rock stars of the Baroque at 11am; the women’s voices of Emily Cox’s Canticum singing Vivaldi’s Women of the Pieta which he wrote for the Ospedale of the Pieta in Venice has one performance tonight in St John’s Cathedral; and there’s a final performance of Agrippina on Saturday night. So there’s your weekend gone. It’s worth moving to Brisbane for this festival alone.

[box]Main image: Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina. Brisbane Baroque 2016, produced by Leo Schofield and Jarrod Carland, plays in various venues around Brisbane City until April 16. Check the website and  buy tickets from QTIX 126 346.[/box]

2 responses to “Brisbane Baroque Festival 2016 reviews

  1. Um, was this reviewer at the same concerts I was at? The Music in the Castle of Heaven concert had many orchestral misfires – wayward brass especially, and missed entries even – and some of the solo singing was very tentative indeed, especially that from Greta Bradman. A ‘perfect concert’? Not by a very long shot…

    And why five stars if she so hated King Arthur?

    1. Any soloist would sound tentative when you have a full symphony orchestra playing arias that originally would’ve been scored much lighter. As for King Arthur….one of the most influential pieces of music of its time….little known….? It’s a lot more famous than Agrippina

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