Shakespeare's Heroines in Opera and Song

Lara-Clare Bourdeaux (soprano) and Nicola Rose (piano)

Iffley Church Hall, Saturday September 17th 2016


A large audience attended this first concert of the 2016-17 programme of Iffley Music Society, given by Lara Bourdeaux (soprano) and Nicola Rose (piano). The four hundredth anniversary of the death of Shakespeare has stimulated numerous special events. None of them can have exceeded in breadth and subtlety this programme of music, setting Shakespearean verse, ranging in style from Purcell to Leonard Bernstein.

The concert proceeded broadly in sequence from Purcell and Haydn to the moderns, but with interludes of song on the themes of faery fantasy and wintery regretfulness. It threaded together some unusual repertoire by composers both famous (Richard Strauss, Bellini) and little known (Elizabeth Maconchy, Castelnuovo-Tedesco). Coming after the opening piece by Purcell, Haydn's 'She never told her love' is one of the twelve English Canzonettas, in which Haydn set the words in English, not German. It sets a brief passage from Twelfth Night, "She never told her love,/But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,/Feed on her damask cheekā€¦" In this short song Lara conveyed the mood of introspection and restraint, with its suggestion of suppressed grief, and with the piano accompaniment almost conveying the "worm" in its passage work.

Thereafter we met a variety of Shakespeare heroines in a range of styles, commencing with Cleopatra, as conveyed by Handel (from Giulio Cesare) in the thrilling "Non disperar", and the more seductive "V'adoro pupille". Here Lara convincingly captured the light Baroque style. This was followed by Richard Strauss's Three Songs of Ophelia, a musical version of German expressionism. The first two of these songs convey contrasting moods of innocence and madness, the latter with wide-ranging leaps. In the third song, which deals with Ophelia's imminent death, Strauss inserts a nightmarish Viennese Waltz. Lara made the virtuoso demands of this series of songs seem effortless, and conveyed the drama and emotion with conviction. The second half of the programme began with a full-blooded performance of some unhappy moments of Bellini's operatic Juliet. There followed a varied group of more recent Shakespeare settings by English composers and the rarely heard American Dominick Argento. All these composers were paraphrasing the idea of the Elizabethan song in a modern idiom, and the artistes fluidly modelled these mixed styles.

Finally, everybody enjoyed some lively Shakespearean paraphrases from Cole Porter (Kiss me Kate) and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) sung with colour and panache. Throughout the recital Lara captured the contrasting styles and periods, with a warm tone over the range and clear diction throughout. She was brilliantly supported by her accompanist, Nicola Rose, whose playing captured both mood and style within this varied programme.

Anna and Tim Brunton