Her Father’s Voice, Brighton Early Music Festival - review

Barbara Strozzi - 'Her Father's Voice' (Susanna Austin, Wise Child Theatre, Fieri Consort) pic by Jamie Wright
Barbara Strozzi - 'Her Father's Voice' (Susanna Austin, Wise Child Theatre, Fieri Consort) pic by Jamie Wright

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

‘Her Father’s Voice’ music-play about Barbara Strozzi (born 400 years ago) at Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), St George’s Kemp Town, Friday 1 November 2019 (8pm). Writing, direction: Henry Bauckham.

Fieri Consort: Hannah Ely soprano; Helen Charlston mezzo; Richard Robbons tenor; Ben Rowarth bass; Harry Buckoke viola de gamba; Toby Carr theorbo, lute, guitar; Aileen Henry harp.

Wise Child Theatre: Susannah Austin (Barbara Strozzi), Ed Thorpe (father Giulio Strozzi), Henry Bauckham (Giovanni Widmann), Tama Phethean (composers Fontei and Ferrari), Ruby Richardson (Isabella, Loredano).

Picture by Jamie Wright – Susanna Austin as Venetian songwriter Barbara Strozzi

A second storytelling concert-play following 24 hours after Clare Norburn’s bio-drama on Henry Purcell reflected the importance to BREMF of theatre and music combining to create attractive and eye-opening musico-historical theatrical experiences for new audience and to nourish existing fans.

Following the Norburn trail come the next generation. Wise Child Theatre’s 2016 London founder Henry Bauckham offers his own look at another of history’s heroine of music composition, Barbara Strozzi. London-based Italian Renaissance repertoire specialists Fieri Consort (2012) already perform a concert programme of Strozzi set alongside her contemporaries Claudio Monteverdi, Nicolo Fontei and Benedetto Ferrari. So joining forces created this bubbling premiere performance.

Our new generation of musicians are sprinkling their own life and imagination into Early Music performance bent on entertainment beyond mere musical archive trawling. Outstanding next day at ‘BREMF Live!’ at St Paul’s were fledgling instrumental baroquers Apollo’s Cabinet (2019), s post-college group hailing from four different nations.

Like Bauckham, they have their own inspirational forerunners – Red Priest (same line-up: recorder, harpsichord, violin, cello) – but are adding storylines and scenarios to illuminate already dramatic music, while erasing the interactive gap between stage and audience. The day after Hallowe’en, Apollo’s Cabinet matched the moment in their ‘Shadows of the Night’ presentation (Vivaldi a strong seam to be mined) but their self-curated concerts can also draw on British poetry.

Barbara Strozzi’s is a story of women’s woe at universal music publishing amid overall societal misogyny. But then a triumph of determination, to prise open the opposition to get into print her secular material of indisputable quality and printworthiness. She went on to belauded in her own lifetime but ‘Her Father’s Voice’ is Henry Bauckham’s take on Strozzi reaching the first bridgehead of her battle.

Thought seems divided on her heritage. Was she a courtesan’s daughter by an anonymous father, as apparently indicated by her birth record, but the adopted daughter of Giulio, whose surname she took?

And was she his ‘blood daughter’ for purposes of propriety in promoting her work, as the enterprising Giulio did freely among scoffing high Venetian society – but as a mover among the liberal artistic cognoscenti about to innovate opera?

Is there a clue in her liberal, heart-on-sleeve, romantic and voluptuous lyrics of blazing, defiant love and crestfallen loss, set to music of ecstasy and agony. Is that merely brazen, or heartfelt? Someone in Venetian publishing crucially decided the latter and justice should be done. Crucial, says Bauckham, was Giulio’s own musical movement, Unisoni, who showcased Barbara’s talent at their meetings and strategically declared her talent to outside society in published reports.

For an event premiere this was delivered with exceptional and seamless confidence. Fieri Consort come already well-versed in Strozzi performance, assertive, strikingly accomplished, both women’s coloratura voices convincingly paired, pleasing ensembles varied according to song, three stringed instruments blending homogenously,topped by harp colour. And performance drawing applause amid the flow of the production.

That bedrock bore the acting and writing which thrived on the woman’s rights debate discussed in Giulio’s intellectual academy, Incogniti, and inevitably in his own home as Barbara’s indomitable self-belief, urged him on in her cause. Bauckham exploits her Achilles heel and rapier sword – her huge heart – in her scenes rebuffing a suitor, taking a serious lover/admirer and then losing him to plague on a visit to Valentia.

Susannah Austin was winningly cast in the star role, bearing a dark version of busty Strozzi’s own rolling and tumbling Vivaldi-red locks, and portraying her sensitivity and formidability.

Fieri’s single Fontei and Monteverdi songs punctuate and contrast the stream of nine Strozzi, as does their bouncing, buoyant Ferrari item (a man declaring love a fool, not a deity), which projected Fieri founder Hannah Ely into elating form. Mezzo Helen Charlston was resolute and robust in her two arias of love’s desolation, and penultimately in the action the other side of Ely’s art tore at the soul in the stricken grief of Strozzi’s My Tears, Why Do You Hold Back?

Fieri Consort’s Strozzi career is warmly re-clothed by Wise Child Theatre. The exuberant acting, and Bauckham’s often highly humorous script makes this look a promising occasional artistic partnership. Now it is up to Early Music to increase those occasions.

Richard Amey


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