Monday 28 November 2005

Authentic Britten

Reviews have just hit the UK press for the new production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House. This is a production that I have Not seen, mainly due to lack of time. But reading the reviews made me think over the productions that I have seen in the past few years. I've noticed a tendency for opera companies to cast counter-tenors in the role on the basis that they are a counter-tenor tout court rather than looking at their tessitura.

The idea of the tessitura of a counter-tenor voice is something that would probably have puzzled Alfred Deller, the first Oberon. But counter-tenors nowadays sing higher roles; David Daniels started on the world operatic stage with Sesto in Handel's Julius Caesar and only more recently moved up (down?) to the title role. This is partly down to the way the voice has developed. All counter-tenors use a mixture of of head voice/falsetto and chest voice, the exact nature of the voice is down to the mix, what notes you sing in which voices. Deller had very much the type of English voice which has a strong cutting edge and the feel of a tenor voice with upward addition. Inevitably, because this is the sort voice needed by the English repertoire that Deller was singing. More recent counter-tenors, especially those in the American mould, seem to take their head voice/falsetto down further creating a softer edged, sometimes rather feminine sound. So I think we must come to accept that there are different types of counter-tenor with different suitabilities.

What I keep feeling is that the more modern high/feminine/American style of voice sounds so unsuitable for Oberon. One or two counter-tenors I have know have commented that Oberon is so Low for them; one pointed out that the part is written with C (and 8ve above middle C) treated as a High Note. So not only does this voice type sound wrong, but the role is low for them. The physical notes lie at different points in their voices. Notes which are effortless for Deller can be effortful, and notes in the strong part of Deller's voice often occur in trickier parts of more modern counter-tenor voices.

As Oberon is one of the major roles for counter-tenor, inevitably if someone is offered the role they accept and find a way to perform it. The result can be moving and creditable, but quite often the sound is such a long way from that of Alfred Deller on Britten's own recording. How long before we accept that this role is written for a certain type of voice and that not all counter-tenors have the right sound quality.

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