Three Bible Her-Stories

Toria Banks, co-creator of concerts that rediscover a celebrated French composer, explains the Dunedin Consort’s latest programme to KEITH BRUCE

Incremental though change may often seem, the development in the breadth of repertoire concert-goers can now expect to hear is interestingly illustrated by the work recently undertaken by Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort.

In this year’s Lammermuir Festival it is joined by soprano Nardus Williams for a concert of early music by women composers, two years after it brought to EIF the radical contemporary revision of Purcell by Errollyn Wallen, Dido’s Ghost. This from an ensemble whose reputation was founded on precision period readings of Handel and Bach.

The Dunedin is this week presenting a programme – in Findhorn, Glasgow and Edinburgh – that both excavates neglected repertoire by a woman composer from the early 18th century and premieres it in a brand new version.

Out of her Mouth is the umbrella title that has been given to three (of the 12) Biblical cantatas, mostly concerned with women in the scriptures, written by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was a lauded composer in the court of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, but whose music is very rarely performed in the 21stcentury.

The project was the brainchild of writer and director Toria Banks, whose company Hera has worked with the Dunedin and Mahogany Opera, who co-produced Dido’s Ghost, to bring it to fruition.

“We’ve been going for five years,” Banks explains, “and we programme operas by women, both current and historical and neglected. We have commissioned new work and explored repertory that is not being performed enough. Mahogany supported the development of an earlier project of ours and then came in to co-produce this after working with Dunedin on Dido’s Ghost.”

She describes the Cantates Biblique as “storytelling pieces of theatre”, their message unlimited by historical context. The chamber group onstage – harpsichord, cello and theorbo continuo with a solo violin – may be playing early 18th century music, but the staging is up-to-date.

“The set and costumes are neither lavish nor period. They are Bible stories of Judith, Rachel and Susanne, but they are very relevant, so we are telling them in an abstracted time and space, rather than in pre-Christian Israel or 18th century France when they were written.

“The music is fantastic, but what attracted me to these specific pieces by Jacquet de la Guerre rather than others was the relevance of the stories.”

The texts were written by the composer’s celebrated contemporary Antoine Houdar de la Motte, whose theatrical successes include the French play of the Portuguese story of Ines de Castro, long before Jo Clifford’s Traverse Theatre version inspired James MacMillan’s debut opera.

“I’ve written the new English version of the text,” says Banks, clearly relishing the challenge. “The libretti are very nimble for the period. In the text – and in the music – there are subtle shifts of perspective, from an ironic, distanced and slightly cynical approach to the subject matter to really hearty-rending sincerity.

“And although I wanted to bring out the female perspective of the characters more, but for a man writing in early 18th century France, there’s a real sense of interesting, well-rounded women in them.

“The technical challenge was to express all this in contemporary-sounding English, but I’ve left in some archaic touches where it feels like the character is being self-mythologising. On the one hand it is creative writing and on the other it is solving a complex puzzle.”

The question remains as to why this careful archaeology was necessary for a composer who was a favourite at court and revered beyond her death.

“In general French Baroque music is under-performed in this country,” Banks points out, “but I do think she has been more forgotten because she’s a woman. She was celebrated in her lifetime and she keeps appearing in lists of France’s ‘great composers’ through the 18th century. It’s only really post-Revolution that she disappears.

“In her lifetime she was right in the thick of it and never marginalised. She was in at the start of the fashion for French cantatas as well as at the start of the sonata as a fashionable form for instrumental music. Sometimes people try to explain her disappearance because her only opera was not a success, but that was in 1694 when almost all operas were failing.

“There is a big difference between her music then and in 1707 when she wrote the Cantates Biblique. She was a lauded young talent, but by the time she wrote these she was in her 40s and they are her mature work, with details that come from a place of confidence.”

Two female singers of comparable experience, Carolyn Sampson and Anna Dennis will sing two of the three, Judith and Susanne, while Rachel is in the hands of the younger Alys Roberts, found through an open call designed to give an opportunity to a less experienced but exciting talent as part of the project.

The composer is known to have sung the cantatas herself, and her sister was also a singer, and Banks describes the work as a gift to performers. She is understandably keen to continue the work of reintroducing Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to modern audiences and has three more of the Biblical cantatas in mind.

“The one I’d like to do that is not expressly about a woman is Adam, which tells the story of The Fall, but does so without mentioning Eve at all. It is sung by a woman, and pins the blame for mankind’s misfortune entirely on Adam.”

Dunedin Consort’s Out of her Mouth is at Universal Hall, Findhorn on Friday, Platform, Midland Street, Glasgow on Saturday and Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Sunday. Performances start at 8pm.

Pictured: Soprano Alys Mererid Roberts