Her Father's Voice

Her Father's Voice

St George’s Church, Brighton 1 November 2019

Barbara Strozzi had a fiercely distinctive style. In this macaronic production the play explained to some extent why this was needed, the music beautifully illustrated just how strikingly independent she was as a poet and composer.

Fieri Consort is a regular contributor to BREMF’s programme and we greatly enjoy watching their scope broadening as their talent matures. I appreciated the jolly songs and duets but, unsurprisingly, it was the two beautiful extended plaints sung by Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano) and Hannah Ely (soprano) which will stay with me. Their impressive technique never detracted from the eloquence of their delivery. They conveyed the echo of Strozzi’s own voice. They were most sensitively supported by Harry Buckoke (bass viol), Toby Carr (theorbo) and Aileen Henry (harp), who are used to performing at BREMF without a conductor.

The stagecraft, however, needed a detached director’s eye and some decisive editing. There were too many characters on the stage, at the cost of clarity. With so much chatter, when contemporary letters were read out I just hoped that they were authentic. The actors had a difficult task as their deeper emotions, both joy and grief, were expressed much better by a different medium, Strozzi’s own music.

Latest Brighton 02.11.19 Andrew Connal

Operating on a shoestring, although doubtless a historically informed one, the Brighton Early Music Festival has nevertheless promoted delightful projects over the years. This latest show is almost another of them.

It’s a play about the composer Barbara Strozzi, born 400 years ago and now regarded as a great proto-feminist pioneer. It falls short only in that Henry Bauckham’s dialogue and direction, although laudably attempting to cover the issues facing a woman trying to become a published composer in early 17th-century Venice, ends up presenting something rather like a modern-day Islington dinner party, albeit one with unusually good live music.

Strozzi’s struggle to get her music recognised is articulated well enough, as is her conflicted relationship with her poet father. He was happy enough to supply texts for her songs, but not so supportive of her having an independent career.

Yet you get little feeling for her parallel struggle simply to survive with three children but no husband. Or of the humiliation she must have felt at the constant smears suggesting that she was little more than a courtesan. I sense she must have been tougher and more worldly-wise than the gently exasperated young woman portrayed by Susannah Austin here.

Still, the spoken drama, enacted by Wise Child Theatre, at least provided useful context for the Fieri Consort’s lightweight but highly expressive delivery of a dozen songs written by Strozzi and her male contemporaries. Numbers such as L’eraclito amoroso, with its startlingly disruptive shifts of mood and mode, or the anguished Lagrime mie attest to how effectively she deployed the hyper-emotional musical language developed by Monteverdi’s generation.

The Times 04.11.19 Richard Morrison