Spirited and disarming evening at the Brighton Early Music Festival

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Beauty Love & Death 2018 - dancers and band. Pic by Robert Piwko
Beauty Love & Death 2018 - dancers and band. Pic by Robert Piwko

‘Beauty, Love and Death’ at Brighton Early Music Festival, at The Old Market, Hove (8pm).

Young singers selected for ‘Early Music Live!’ with members of BREMF Consort of Voices, Dancers from Streetfunk (choreographer JO Omari), Monteverdi String Band, recorder duo Flauti d’echo, harpsichord Claire Williams, chitarrone James Bramley, harp Kit Spencer, modern kit percussion, Pete Flood.

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Claudio Monteverdi, ‘Il baalo delle ingrate’ (Dance of the Ungrateful Dead Women) (1608) with soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell (Amore), mezzo Bethany Horak-Hallett (Venere), bass John Lee (Plutone), soprano Hannah Ely (Ingrata 1). John Blow, ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1683) with Lodge-Campbell (Venus), Horak-Hallett (Cupid), baritone Edward Jowle (Adonis).

Three nights of early music theatre and dance in 21st Century clothes and movement brought children, teenagers and the 20s into BREMF performing action in serious numbers. They were singing and dancing in the only BREMF event having more than one performance. It was an obvious breath of fresh air, and honours for giving they – and us – this experience go to festival director Deborah Roberts, stage director Tim Guthrie and co-ordinator Cathy Boyes.

To what might it lead with these young people?

During production, I’m told Guthrie later brought in drummer Peter Flood to match up with the dancers executing in modern street style and this completed the contemporary take. Were Monteverdi and Blow composing these works now, would they not be using young voices and the instruments of the culture?

The drums and street dance teamed easily with the old instruments sharing the stage and the musicians were dressed (Flood in red schoolboy cap and grey shorts), in tune with the boisterous, obstreperous, flirtatious adolescents of an imaginary co-educational St Trinians class with attitude in The School of Love. They are back from an educational trip to Hades and are giving a show on parents’ evening.

In the essentially serious Monteverdi semi-opera of sunlight and cloud, Venus teaches the youngsters the wry, centuries-old Italian poetic lesson, as given to the ladies of Monteverdi’s Mantua, that resisting the powers of love can have dire, even fatal consequences. The example of four semi-conscious, disheveled women appears from Hades’ heap of the female Ungrateful Dead. They’re piled up in Hell, for scoffing at love, or heartlessly abusing it, and have forfeited the rewards of its enjoyment.

The English John Blow’s masque for dance is more like old stage-musical fun but with a startlingly raw climax in which Venus suddenly loses her Adonis to a lethal hunting injury – a moment turned into instant, a highly-charged operatic closing scene by the penetrating portrait of grief shown by Lauren Lodge-Campbell as the goddess of love.

Blow’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ – an entertainment for the king himself – is regarded, we learn from the programme notes, as the model for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. And we know, springing from that, that Dido’s Lament at the loss of Aeneas packs a similar power scale.

Any sense in sound or visual terms soon dissipates, that we are watching odd couplings. Cupid goes to tutorial work on the students entertainingly in the Monteverdi and in the fun of the Blow he’s to blame for his mother Venus’ headlong match-up with Adonis. The dancing brings it all to life, just as intended in their own day by the composers.

Deborah Roberts’ and Tom Guthrie’s explanation in the programme tells us the history in just the kind of way that makes BREMF events so insightful for we who, complacent in our modernity, need it. She said the audience would have joined in the dancing, and with familiar contemporary steps, although the rider was that only the nobility shared that culture.

The co-producers rejected pursuing a museum reproduction and went boldly towards our own contemporary dance culture with music resilient and universal enough to shoulder the ride and mother new interpretations. Percussion and dance, they add, had been partners long before Monteverdi and Blow.

I defy anyone not to have derived pleasure from this spirited and disarming evening. Not to have done so might just result in a sentence to join those Ungrateful Dead.