Penelope Appleyard (Fillide) & Angela Hicks (Aminta)
The Launch - 26 & 27 May
On a in May 2019 a small group gathered in the Reading Room of a pretty village buried deep in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside. They included the highly talented sopranos Angela Hicks and Penelope Appleyard, who make up the duo Fair Oriana, along with the harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck, director of the Ensemble Molière and also the ensemble Ceruleo. Oh, and of course me. Sadly, Satoko was prevented from being with us in the morning as she was still suffering the effects of an overnight indisposition. Our objective formed what would be the first tiny steps towards realisation of a burning and long-held ambition - to restore Baroque opera to its full exotic and colourful glory, grace and elegance by employing the movement and gesture of the period.
Tiny steps certainly. The chosen work is not an opera but Aminta e Fillide, an extended cantata composed by Handel in Rome in 1708. Scored for two sopranos, strings and continuo, its Arcadian setting in which the shepherd Aminta (to be played by Angela) pursues his love for the reluctant shepherdess Fillide (Penny) nevertheless provides sufficient dramatic scope to challenge us for a first attempt. Our initial task was to read through the libretto in English in an attempt to find a response to some of its emotional demands. I have for some time felt that the relatively few attempts at using Baroque gesture so often founder at the starting gate because they look to have been externally imposed. Rather they should arise from within the singer in a naturally expressive way. This is no easy task for modern singers, whose obvious inclination is to respond in a 21st century, not 18th century way. It is something that will need a lot of work with singers who have never previously worked with gesture.
Having worked our way through the reading the plan was to concentrate firstly on the recitatives. But we were still without a keyboard player. This is where Angie and Penny showed their outstanding musicianship. For the rest of the morning and the early part of the afternoon they went through all the recitative without keyboard support, not only pitching it perfectly but additionally showing a keen dramatic instinct in projecting it. Gesture, too, started to show the first signs of arising from the emotional response to the situation; at the crucial moment where Fillide finally concedes to Aminta’s entreaties a real sense of dramatic interaction and frisson between the two made itself excitingly clear.
Satoko made a heroic mid-afternoon appearance, but by this time we had lost Penny! She had, at inevitably short notice, been informed of her husband’s return from a tour of duty with the RAF. Understandably, she wished to greet him, so once Satoko’s harpsichord had been installed we ran through Aminta’s arias, at the same time introducing gesture. However I am convinced there should be far less movement in arias than in recitative; it is intensely distracting to see singers flapping around as if giving semaphore signals during an aria, when the singer is trying to seduce us, the audience, with their singing and we do not want to be distracted from it. I was delighted to discover that my singers are able to incorporate another aspect of period practice, the ability to improvise ornamentation in da capo repeats. At my request Angie tried adding decoration in this way and the results of her modest variations were excitingly innovative and encouraging. By the end of the afternoon we had worked our way through all Aminta’s arias and I had heard enough to feel that we had set something truly special afoot.
On the following morning we all assembled together in one place for the first time, though not before Satoko (now fully recovered) and Angie - who had stayed locally overnight - took an unscheduled trip round the Wiltshire countryside. Given the lovely sunny morning the detour was entirely forgivable! First up this morning were the arias of Fillide, which also went very well given Penny’s study of them is not yet complete. We also talked of another beautiful embellishment used extensively in the Baroque, but all too rarely employed today. This is the messa di voce, the gradual crescendo and decrescendo of a sustained note, used especially in slower, expressive arias. Penny demonstrated a lovely example in one of Phillide’s arias and knowing we can introduce them adds a further dimension to our performance potential.
It was now time to put everything together with a complete traversal of the cantata, which I wanted to happen without interruption from me. One of the most important things this revealed, though it had also been apparent in Aminta’s reactions to Fillide’s arias, is that while it is not too hard for the singers to be encouraged to use gesture while they are singing, it is infinitely much harder for them to react appropriately when listening to the other character. What they cannot do is distract attention from the singer, so they must remain largely still, with the exception of interludes provided by instrumental ritornelli when some movement is possible, perhaps even desirable. We found that both Angie and Penny tended to fairly quickly ‘fall out of character’ during the other’s arias. It is something we tried to work on in our final afternoon session, but it is a problem to which a lot more thought needs to be devoted by me before we next meet. Following an agreeable pub lunch, that afternoon session was devoted to attempting to further integrate gesture with the emotional content of the arias and the interaction between the two.
We concluded an immensely rewarding couple of days in the realisation that while there is still far to go, the Aminta project was well and truly under way. And for me had come the huge reassurance that I was working not only with real talent – which I’d not needed to be told - but just as importantly with truly receptive and intelligent singers, not something to be gainsaid! It is a privilege to work with Angie and Penny, to whom I offer my grateful thanks in addition to those due to Sakoto for her splendid support. Here’s to the next chapter …
6 December 2019
Sadly pressure of time has meant that I've not yet had time to update this blog. Meanwhile until I do here's a gallery of photos taken from the week of the performance of Aminta e Fillide at St Georges', Hanover Square on 28 November 2019