Early this summer, a slew of middle-aged, male London critics lay into an Irish mezzo-soprano at Glyndebourne for being too fat.
A leading English mezzo, Alice Coote, issued a stinging response on the dangers of judging a singer by body shape. Opera, she wrote, ‘will die if audiences have only average looking, average singing humans walking around in interesting ( or average) looking productions.’ Her challenge put critics on their mettle and was quoted in breakfast television studios from Moscow to New York.
Alice admitted at the time that she might be singled out for revenge by a disgruntled critic. That moment appears to have arrived.
In this morning’s (London) Times Richard Morrison, one of the Glyndebourne fat pack, writes of Alice’s performance as Xerxes at English National Opera:
One thing makes this show impossible to recommend, and that is Alice Coote’s weird, almost unhinged performance in the title role. Xerxes is a perpetual loser, forever outwitted, but in the end he accepts his losses with good grace. Coote, however, plays him like some overblown Victorian tragedian emoting Lear. And her singing – full of ugly scoops, slow-ups and grossly indulgent embellishments – is like something dredged from another era, and not in a good way.
Richard’s apoplexy is running so high in this review that he commits a hapless tautology – Victorian tragedian… like something dredged from another era – a slip of the memory that is as ugly and unprofessional as anything the critic claimed to have heard.
He concludes: Coote’s mezzo is still a great instrument, but I won’t hurry to hear her murder Handel again.
I think Richard has overstepped the mark. I was unable, due to a sudden family issue, to attend the opening night so I cannot offer a personal opinion on Alice Coote’s Xerxes. However, the first review appeared from Guy Damann in the Guardian newspaper. He writes:
The main draw of this umpteenth revival of ENO’s 1985 production, directed here by Michael Walling and conducted by Michael Hofstetter, is the casting of Alice Coote in the title role. Though by no means a natural Handelian, Coote recently released an impressive CD of Handel arias, and her full-bodied tone and tremendous vocal swagger work particularly well with a characterisation that plays the role as a cross between George I and Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim. The emperor’s blind sense of omnipotence translates well into the way Coote effortlessly wrests control away from the pit, slowing the orchestra – at times almost to a standstill – and the way she both inhabits the character as well as exceeds it, revelling in the electricity of her vocal presence. True, her voice was wearing out by the end of the evening, but her depiction of the despot’s reluctant enlightenment is both touching and profound.
Almost the exact opposite.
Guy had no axes to grind. Could it be that fat-pack Richard nurtured an unconscious malice for Alice?