If you don’t love countertenors (and some don’t) the opening weekend of the Aldeburgh Festival wasn’t for you – because it was a celebration of the high male voice, and demonstrated how diverse this kind of singing has become, now it’s no longer an exotic rarity.
Two totally dissimilar star countertenors were in residence, starting with Andrew Watts whose big, dramatic, fruity tone leans more towards contemporary repertoire than the expected Bach and Handel. And it was with contemporary music that he shone in two recitals, one of them a showcase for pieces specially written for him and including contrasted song settings (texts by John Donne and William McGonagall, if you can imagine such a pairing) by the quirkily sharp Anglo-Chinese composer Raymond Yiu.
Aldeburgh’s other countertenor was Iestyn Davies, who tends to focus more on the Baroque, although he’s recently been singing operas by George Benjamin and Thomas Adès. And for Aldeburgh he was starring in the modern-classic role for his voice-type: Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the festival was running at Snape Maltings in a Netia Jones production.
The Dream is an opera that belongs to Aldeburgh insofar as it was written for the 1960 festival, premiering at the seafront Jubilee Hall in a space so tiny it’s hard to know how everything fitted in and left room for an audience. But the small space gave Britten a certain licence in setting the Shakespearian text, knowing it would come across. In larger venues it’s always difficult, and at Snape it was a real problem. Only Matthew Rose as Bottom made the text intelligible; and in a huge performance that did exactly what’s required to make Bottom’s boorishness sympathetic, he stole the show. Or more properly, he co-stole it with the smartly atmospheric video projections that Netia Jones used as an economical solution to set design.
By comparison, Oberon became less prominent – beautifully sung but incoherent and static – although he did deliver one extraordinary gesture, shocking but funny, of chloroforming the fairy who stood guard over the sleeping Titania before making off with her little Indian boy slung over his shoulder. If I remember the show for nothing else, it will be that.
Also at Aldeburgh were the virtuosic choral group Exaudi singing sourly microtonal music from the High Renaissance (there was such a thing, though it’s not beautiful to hear). And, more enjoyably, there was the Belcea Quartet playing Shostakovich with exhilarating power and sly, seductive salon-irony. Few festivals pack in so much, so brilliantly, or in such magical surroundings. Aldeburgh is a special place: a refuge, a retreat, but equally a powerhouse of creative energy. May it be always so.
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