Hampton Court was built by a cardinal, surrendered to a king, and played host to some of the determining dramas of the English Reformation – from which point cardinals no longer graced its Chapel Royal. The last known Catholic liturgy there took place during the reign of Bloody Mary in the 1550s.
So it was an historic event last week when Cardinal Vincent Nichols celebrated Solemn Vespers there according to the Latin Rite, assisted by the Anglican Bishop of London. And it was a musical event too, because hired for the occasion was perhaps the best choir in the world: The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers, sounding as fine as any voices could in a bone-dry acoustic.
Other than some questionably French-Romantic organ playing in the psalms and a stylistically uncomfortable insertion of the National Anthem at the end, the repertoire was appropriate 16th-century English Tudor: a Tallis Magnificat, a Taverner Kyrie, a turbulent Salve Regina by the not so well-known William Cornysh, and an organ postlude by the composer whose life sums up the surreal existence of musicians in those times of spiritual warfare, William Byrd.
A Catholic recusant serving a periodically Protestant court, Byrd wrote Mass settings in secret, Anglican anthems in public, and is believed to have had his recusancy fines paid for him by Elizabeth I – the queen by whose authority they were imposed in the first place. Devoted to music, she apparently protected those who made it from her own draconian laws: a precedent that you can only wish applied today, when music is an easy target in the sight of government. God save Radio 3 from what’s in store. And as it happens, Radio 3 was there, recording this historic Vespers for broadcast on March 30. Worth listening out for.
Chabrier’s L’étoile is to French 19th-century opera as candy floss would be to a worthy diet: light-spun froth devoid of substance and nutrition. It might have been fun in the right context – a small venue, where featherweight voices could skip effortlessly through the patter-songs. But Covent Garden isn’t right – it’s too grand, too formal – and the new production playing there fails miserably.
It has appropriate voices, mostly French. It’s visually inventive, with diverting Monty Python-esque gags in the set designs. But otherwise the show is feeble, and made worse by the decision to enlarge it, with a wrap-around of spoken text supplied by two comedians – one of them Chris Addison from The Thick of It – who serve no purpose and aren’t funny. Mark Elder, who conducts, serves a more obvious purpose; but not brilliantly enough to save a lifeless show.
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