Game of Thrones concert delights at 2018 Brighton Early Music Festival

Elin Manahan Thomas (sop) & Elizabeth Kenny (lute & theorbo)
Elin Manahan Thomas (sop) & Elizabeth Kenny (lute & theorbo)

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

‘Game of Thrones’: 2018 Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), St Peter’s Church, 1pm, Saturday October 27. Elin Manahan Thomas (sop), Elizabeth Kenny, lute, chitarrone. Music by Anonymous, Lassus, de Monte, de Sermisy, Byrd, Holborne, Dowland, Carissimi.

Had the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex been sitting and listening to this performance in their new nominal county, they’d have been kicking themselves. Why on earth hadn’t they also asked Elin Manahan Thomas to sing John Dowland’s ‘Come Away, Come Away Sweet Love’ as they took their leave of St George’s Chapel Windsor at the end of their Royal Wedding Service on May 19?

Elizabeth Kenny’s lute excited cross-rhythms swept in and Thomas’ voice and feeling for the moment danced forth in that instant of lovers’ escape from the outside world into their own new romantic one. She was fervent and gaily ardent with chuckling phrasing, eager for adventure and consummation. Had she sung it on the Big Day itself, the idea of Meghan Markle whisking her prize Prince Henry of Wales away into the sun-drenched afternoon to this ditty would have been another bold innovative feature of the Service as we now appreciate it.

Welsh signs and touches were everywhere, remember. Meghan (American but a Welsh name!) began her procession from the West Door towards the altar rail, and her waiting bridegroom, to the ecstatic sound of a Welsh voice – that of Thomas – pouring onto the scene the soaring and hovering lines of Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’. All eyes and cameras were on the bride and the dress (barely none on the soprano and orchestra, alas). Senior Welsh Prince, Charles, offering his arm, joined the procession up the aisle to hand over the bride, and the betrothed exchanged their tremulous first private words of the day, still to the sound of Thomas in flight.

Even as she had been singing a Handelian counter-tenor role, so in Dowland at St Peter’s on Saturday Thomas sang songs synonymous to modern minds with the male voice since the courts of the Renaissance brought Dowland’s ultra-expressive music into being. That performance typecasting now lies behind us in our current years of change and fresh gender enlightenment.

Could singing ‘Come Away, Come Away Sweet Love’ at Windsor have been too heavy a public blow on a royal stage for female emancipation? Maybe. Ask saucy novellist Jilly Cooper. Or Dame Ann Leslie of The Daily Mail. But the virginal Queen Elizabeth I had been tactically suggesting match-ups with suitor-rulers around Europe in what Elin Manahan Thomas spotted was a Game of Thrones worth relating in a concert created for BREMF.

It is a rewarding spin-off. Thomas is a Sussex resident and we may secretly hope she gets to perform it one day to our new Duke and Duchess.

For we simple British subjects, this Game of Thrones – initiated by Kenny playing the programme’s TV theme tune on the lute – was an absorbing strip-away of the glamour around royalty. Elizabeth I played politics leveraging her potential hand in marriage in proposed international treaties, while all the while, says Thomas in her programme notes, staying romantically loyal to her un-marryable courtier Robert Dudley. Therein lies maybe a potential Thomas’ follow-up concert subject, with more Dowland, William Byrd and rivals.

As Elizabeth I evaded her own betrothal and deflowering, so composers ducked and dived between the polarising Catholic and Protestant religions.

The Handel aria Thomas sang at the Royal Wedding was from a cantata ode for the birthday of Queen Anne, who looks eternally disgruntled in her portrait) and who it’s speculated was either too busy or indifferent to have it performed. Yet, ungenerous she wasn’t. She awarded Handel a pension for life. Not a bad royalty rewarding his effort.

Dowland wasn’t even as lucky under Elizabeth I. She never appointed him to her highest court, foreign ones paid him much better, and so he opted to spend long periods working abroad to feed his family back home.

A chief fascination of BREMF is discovering these histories while escorted by instructing courier musicians whose music is placed vividly foreground. Thomas and Kenny shared narration introducing songs in clutches along themes, not period dressed (ignoring Lucy Worsley) but in contemporary contrast – Thomas in ditzy dark blue floral skater dress, tights and bobby hair; Oxford University professor Kenny in red velvet jacket, wide trousers, clumping Doc Marten-style boots, and floppy parted mop.

It was an hour’s lunchtime enrichment hidden away from the Brighton city Saturday bustle. Kenny revelled in the floridity of Dowland’s Frog Galliard interlude in ‘Now O Now I Needs Must Part’, and set the scene for many a different Thomas mood and situation – anxious and agitated in ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs’, admiring and regretful in ‘His Golden Locks’.

The Anonymous ‘Woe Worth The Time’ culminated in an unaccompanied final verse as the concert colour transited into the last words of the assassination-plotting Mary Queen of Scots, before her execution reluctantly ordered by Elizabeth her cousin one removed.

For this, from a single sound-holed lute, Kenny leaped three sizes and lengths to her trip

le sound-holed theorbo, or citarrone (same instrument, alternative name), as the scenario called for the bitter power of Carrissimi’s Baroque operatic ‘Ferma, lacia ch’lo parli’. A stirring and shocking dramatic climax to Thomas’ presentation, and briefly but showcasing her crackling Baroque prowess in a striking switch of genre seamlessly delivered.

But she lightened the darkness and lifted the clouds by finally reading a reflective late-life poem by Elizabeth I herself, before with Kenny singing a courtly-tripping upbeat tribute by Dowland to her majesty, ‘Queen of Love and Beauty’.

BREMF has its own new princess. Maybe the new Duke and Duchess will pay her a visit when she’s next in action here.

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

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