Dunedin: Out Of Her Mouth
Few would argue that the Dunedin Consort, an ensemble that not long ago faced financial oblivion and likely extinction, is now considered one of Scotland’s most creative and imaginative musical groups. Among its many achievements, it has found ingenious ways to contemporise the historical performance ethos in such a way as to preserve the early music movement’s fundamental integrity, often through daring collaborations with contemporary composers or similarly-minded collaborators.
Take this season finale, an opera-styled presentation called Out Of Her Mouth, which manufactures a continuous dramatic entity out of three early 18th century Cantates Bibliques by the Versailles-based composer Elizabeth Jaquet de la Guerre. Each centres on a separate biblical heroine – Susanne, Rachel and Judith – whose stories speak of sexual oppression and their inner strength in managing or conquering it.
To enable this, Dunedin has joined forces with Mahogany Opera and We Are Hera. Hera’s joint artistic director Toria Banks – her company focuses on presenting inclusive opera for women and gender minority artists – has translated and adapted the original texts to formulate a bullish, streamlined English libretto. Cardiff-based stage director Mathilde Lopez and designer Will Monks create a restless, visual menagerie unified by the constant onstage presence of all three singers. Dunedin’s four-piece period band is also a permanent fixture on a crowded stage.
The onus is on the singers to define their respective characters: Anna Dennis as a defiant Susanne; Alys Mererid Roberts as the duped but compliant Rachel; Carolyn Sampson taking the juiciest of roles as the bloodthirsty Judith. They do so with ballsy intent, Sampson ultimately stealing the show with consummate magnetism and the intoxicating power to endear and shock at the flick of a switch.
It helps that this final cantata is the strongest musically, its opening aria gilded with Purcellian polish and exuberance, its momentum sustained by both de la Guerre’s enlivened invention and Sampson’s engaging vocal and theatrical nuances. Where she contemplates her murderous act – the beheading of the sleeping sex-pest Holofernes – the sentiment is vile, the music strangely enchanting, the dramatic irony hideously apparent.
If the boyishly-attired Dennis and Wellingtons-clad Roberts have less persistently inspired music to contend with, they take the lead from the animated ensemble, using force of personality to overcome the more prosaic conventionalism they are dealt.
Where this often accident-prone production did struggle was in meeting the challenge of an unsuitable venue. Glasgow’s Platform, formerly The Arches, is essentially a cavernous brick-lined crypt beneath the railway lines serving Glasgow Central Station. Time and again, Out Of Her Mouth played counter to the enveloping roar of overhead trains.
That was insurmountable, but there were other aspects of this show that suffered from issues either implicit within director Mathilde Lopez’s overheated production style or determined by a low-slung stage area that facilitated technical mishaps.
Coordination between the sung/spoken word and projected text frequently went askew, even obliterated at times by the singers’ shadows or the towering theorbo. For such a compact space, Lopez chose unadvisedly to forfeit clarity for overcomplexity. Symbolic props ranged from a series of kitchen paper towels – unrolled to criss-cross the stage and at one point wrap around the cellist’s music – to water melons variously disembowelled or beaten to pulp, whose purpose was clearest when representing Holofernes’ head, mercilessly minced by Judith with a baseball bat. There was too much going on, with confusing consequences.
Other venues in this tour may provide the production with the space it needs. After Glasgow, it heads for Edinburgh, York Early Music Festival and Spitalfields Festival in London.
Photo: Carolyn Sampson