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Pale and wan

02/10/2005 -  
The Renaissance Muse
Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor), Laila Robins (actor), Crawford Young (lute), Stacey Shames (harp),

Mark Lamos (director)

Staging a song recital is, in artistic terms, almost inevitably going over the top: Peter Pears' long-ago period-dress Winterreise was camp as a row of pink tents; Trisha Brown's much more recent choreography of the same song cycle was artifice piled upon art, and worth seeing mainly because Simon Keenlyside is one of the very rare singers you would pay to see dancing. As a performer, though, Andreas Scholl is more a voice with personal charm than a stage personality, and his recent recordings have shown him moving towards the Alfred Deller repertoire of lute songs and folk songs, ancient simplicity rather than Handelian rhetoric or Schubertian complexity of experience. Mark Lamos' staging of a selection of numbers from Scholl's recent repertoire as a result was, unusually, more at risk of vapidity, and didn't quite avoid it.

The visual setting was attractive, at least. The stage was strewn with oriental carpets and divans, and the performers, barefoot but dressed in (perhaps) eighteenth-century brocades for the men and big frocks for the women, took up erotically charged positions out of Vermeer. There was atmospheric lighting. The programme itself consisted of familiar songs lute songs and folk songs, and related poems, all on the themes of love and art, and all delicately done to the point of insubstantiality. Perhaps harps, guitars and lutes (all exquisitely played) just don't work in a space the size of the Barbican Hall. If there was sound engineering, it was uncredited and lightly done. Evidence that there wasn't was that it was at times difficult to hear the words said by the luscious voiced actor Laila Robins. She looked and sounded alluring but, impersonating the flighty muse and mistress, emoted rather generically.

Scholl, in contrast, got every English word over perfectly, and hardly needed the texts that were projected at the sides of the stage. He may have had the advantage being allowed to project into the space, where Robins was supposed to "act" throughout, but he also had superb diction, bar the odd counter-tenor's vowel, and he conveyed a full if cerebral understanding of everything he sang. His interaction with Robins was minimal – they performed around each other most of the time. One very slightly naughty exchange evinced amused applause from the audience, but the rest was something like a seminar most of the time. The high points were Scholl's performance of a selection of folk songs that didn't need the mise en scène at all, particularly an unaccompanied and impeccably tuned "Black is the color", a beautiful "She moved through the fair", somewhat demystified by the inclusion of extra verses but still shiveringly spooky, and a wonderfully sustained "Lord Rendall", again with every possibly verse, but still a powerful drama. When Scholl was singing it, the juvenile version, with sound effects, was completely forgotten

HE Elsom



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