Handel and Glass at the BBC Proms and Printworks

An experience that masked the power of the music that underpinned it

Husband of twenty-five years Simon introduced me to Lascia ch’io pianga (from Handel’s Rinaldo) soon after we met in late ’97.

Recreational drugs vibe to proceedings. It was an incredible listen.

And whilst I’m eager to make clear that the version we were listening to was as far from a landmark recording as is possible, what I reflect on now I listen back to it today is how the score rings out.

Handel’s writing is remarkable. Gut-wrenching. Heartstopping. Barbra did good. My memory of that listening experience was inevitably something electricfying.

Lascia ch’io pianga was the centre piece of BBC Proms at Printworks earlier today at the ENO/BBC collaboration led by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo at the former print press hub in South East London. 

I arrived characteristically late, the pathos ramped up high given how close I live to the venue: 3.4 miles.

The irony was how long it took to access the performance space. The journey took 35 minutes. The walk after I had parked the car, and passed various ticket and security checks, took around 8 minutes. For an event that seeks to make classical music more appealing to a younger audience it’s considerably more steps than I’m used to when visiting the Royal Albert Hall.

Inside, a sea of heads and bodies occupied the long narrow Printworks interior. Some sipped coffee, others swigged from slim cans of fizzy drink. Wisps of smoke illuminated by spotlights contributed to a sense of urgency. People looked meaningfully at the projections on the wall. Expectant looks were exchanged in places. This was epic theatre in the place where the Evening Standard used to be printed.

This wasn’t an event designed for me. There was an edge. Conflict. Tension. Everyone seemed to be younger than me. They appeared to have the inside track. I blundered around.

Not surprising perhaps. I’m 50 for goodness sake. I’m set in my ways. I love convention. The would-be iconoclasts will tell you that I’m part of the problem. I respond to the ‘feel’ of a bow on string. I’m boring.

And yet, despite the supposedly relaxed feel to moving around, ‘prommers’ were surprisingly sniffy about me shifting positions. In a lot of cases ‘excuse me’ didn’t really cut it. Some looked right through me. This was an event that had all the hallmarks of being ‘relaxed and groovy’. Mobile phones were lifted up whenever ‘interest’ passed by. This felt like an event designed for those who want to be seen at events.

Bizarrely enough, the same familiar preoccupations steadfastly remained. People resisted stepping aside to allow others to mingle. Whispering felt wrong. There was a sense we were all participating in someone’s else’s theatre. There were moments when it felt, I’m sorry to say this, all a bit odd.

What sealed the deal for me was Lascia ch’io pianga and seeing Anthony Roth Costanzo walking through the audience surrounded by his entourage of camera people and lighting drones. Make up, costume, and technical infrastructure made this all possible but unwittingly created something messianic.

Perhaps it was more radio than person. Inside the empty print works with projections on the wall cut with real-life art, dance and random soundscapes, this was an experience that masked the power of the music that underpinned it. Endless photo opportunities presented themselves. Lots of hipsters around me nodded sagely, appreciating the vibe not realising they were part of theatre.

For classical music iconoclasts the presence of such a big audience will be seen as proof the concept works. I remain dubious. I’m more interested in knowing just how many tickets were actually sold.

Because projectors, directors, designers, runners, live feeds, camera people, sound technicians, singers, and musicians cost a lot of money. This was undoubtedly an expensive production. If it didn’t cover its costs, did it communicate something distinctive? Did the audience necessarily care?

What really rang out was the magic of Handel’s melodies and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s voice. Which then makes me wonder, why don’t we just have him on a stage singing some Handel arias?

For the sake of balance and kindness, I’d recommend the radio broadcast. An excellent listening experience. But beware those who herald this in-person-event as the future of classical music. I’m not entirely convinced it is.


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