Ruby Hughes; Olympic Gold

Ruby Hughes in conversation with The Editor.

While most eyes this summer will be on sporting events in London, more than a few will be turned to Garsington Opera’s Olympic venture – the first production in this country of Vivaldi’s 1734 L’Olimpiade – and while there may be no gold medals in the offing the assembled artists will make this one of the most important artistic occasions of the year, not least because of the presence of Ruby Hughes as Argene.

A BBC New Generation Artist and Winner of both First Prize and the Audience Prize at the 2009 Handel Singing Competition, she has rapidly become one of the most sought after baroque singers. Her voice is variously described as radiant, delectable, mesmerising, with coloratura arias of ravishing beauty and all totally fearless.

One critic noted that she stalked the stage with great poise and elegance and revelled in the plethora of arioso sections which Monteverdi granted her as an immortal. She sings with warmth, superb clarity and control as well as great conviction.

She joins a line of young singers which includes Andrew Kennedy, Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe, who have all launched their careers through the baroque repertoire – a course which only a few years ago would have seemed perilous in the extreme but today holds out the chance to explore realms of musical creativity which have lain undisclosed for centuries. In many ways the re-discovery of baroque scores is as exciting as performing new scores for the first time.

I wondered how Ruby Hughes came to music in the first place?

‘My mother, Elizabeth Fritsch, was probably the most important influence. Though she is famous as a ceramicist she played the harp and had studied with Ossian Ellis. I also had great aunts who played the harp so I was surrounded by music as a child. I suppose I was a secure musician before I was fifteen and well on the way to realising this was the career I wanted to follow. I did a lot of acting and dancing at an early age, so appearing on stage was never really a problem, and combining the two in opera almost came naturally to me. I can remember being taken to Stratford when very young and Shakespeare has always seemed quite natural to me. ‘

She studied voice and ‘cello at Chetham’s School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before gaining a First Class Distinction Concert Diploma in Concert and Song at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Munich, working with Edith Wiens.

But it was the 2009 Handel Singing Competition which provided the breakthrough, and the important opportunity to work with Laurence Cummings.

‘Laurence has been immensely important in helping shape my career. Handel’s music is so direct, the emotional focus is so clear, that I find no difficulty empathising with the characters I am singing.’

Her performances at the Göttingen Handel Festival, where Laurence Cummings is the new Director, brought superb reviews.

“…Ruby Hughes utterly bewitched her listeners. She displayed a bright soprano of wonderfully beautiful timbre that carried well even in the lower register.”

“But the finest singing of the opening weekend came the next evening, when soprano Ruby Hughes joined Laurence Cummings and his London Handel Players for a programme of cantatas and instrumental music. The haughty gaze of the Hanoverian Kings (George 11 founded Göttingen university) – whose portraits hang behind the stage in the university’s main hall – and a tremendous thunderstorm provided a dramatic backdrop for Hughes’ sensuous performance of Rameau and Clérambault.”

They will be back together again this summer at Garsington Opera where Laurence Cummings is preparing the new production of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade in which Roby Hughes is singing Princess Argene.

‘The plot is very complex – almost Shakespearean in its denouement – and the arias cover a wide range of emotions. As there is so little stage history to the work it is like creating a new opera, and certainly it will be exhilarating working with director David Freeman to realise a world which is both true to Vivaldi’s score but relevant and exciting for a 21st century audience. We are fortunate to have a long rehearsal period for Garsington, which gives us time to ensure we are properly on top of the music before we start on the floor and can then almost ignore the score – because it is now secure within us – while we concentrate on creating a convincing dramatic reality.’

Acting has come easily to her and she relishes the challenges it brings. ‘In Munich I sang Judith in Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans in which I not only had to hack off Holofernes’ head but heave it lustily across the stage.’

To date she has not attempted many trouser roles but these are beginning to come her way, and she will be singing travesti Mozart in Scotland in September.

I wondered if she felt she was too closely identified with the baroque repertoire?

‘I am immensely grateful to the opportunities which I have had to sing baroque music and the breadth of music which is available even within that genre, but I would not like to be type-cast or pigeon-holed at the expense of the rest of the repertoire. I have sung much more broadly than my current CV may imply and am working with Julius Drake on both romantic and modern songs. I recorded two recitals for the BBC of Berg and Schumann recently and I will be taking some of this new repertoire to the Mananan and West Cork Festivals later this year. Smaller festivals are a really good chance to expand my work and, in a small way, take risks which might not be feasible within the normal opera house or concert series.’

If her confident presence on stage and her growing reputation as one of our finest baroque sopranos continues to rise at its present rate, we are certain to hear far more of Ruby Hughes; and maybe our memories of the Olympics 2012 will feature Vivaldi at Wormsley rather than Bolt at Stratford.

There are two further performances on 22 and 29 June.

See National Reviews section for comment on the performance. BH

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