Wednesday 18 February 2015

English Baroque double bill - Blow and Purcell

Purcell Dido and Aeneas, Blow Venus and Adonis; Opera Lyrica, dir: Cuffolo, cond: Cole; St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Fine solo contributions lift this double bill of 17th century English operas

Opera Lyrica, artistic director Paola Cuffolo, is a small opera company which aims to give opportunities to young professional singers. They give simple, direct productions of operas with accompaniment from instrumental ensemble and their main London productions are usually at the Twentieth Century Theatre in Notting Hill but for the group's double bill of English baroque operas which is currently being toured, we caught them at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden last night (18 February 2015).

The two early English one act operas, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Blow's Venus and Adonis are linked in many ways so it makes an obvious choice to pair them. Opera Lyrica performed both works in a staging by Paola Cuffolo, with Belinda Evans as Venus, Chris Webb as Adonis and James Hall as Cupid in Blow's opera, and Esther Brazil as Dido, Christopher Diffey-Wilson as Aeneas, Anna Goodhew as Belinda, Jack Lawrence-Jones as the Sorceress and Guy Withers as the Sailor. William Cole directed a small string ensemble from the harpsichord.

John Blow (1649 - 1709) was succeeded as organist of Westminster Abbey by Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) and Blow had been Master of the Children at the Chapel Royal when Purcell was there as a boy, so the two composers had a number of links. Their two operas have a remarkable number of similarities, both written within 10 years of each other (Venus and Adonis in 1683 and Dido and Aeneas in 1688), their mythology based plots and the fact that they both set English through composed without any of the spoken dialogue usual in music theatre works.

We know precious little about their gestation. Blow's piece was written as an entertainment for the court with evidently one of  King Charles's mistresses (the actress Moll Davis) as Venus and their child Lady Mary Tudor as Cupid, whilst Purcell's opera was a school entertainment. At least that is the information that has come down to us (Purcell's opera survives only in a later manuscript copy adapted for use as masques within Measure for Measure). But recent scholarship has suggested that Blow's opera was also performed at the same school as Purcell's, leading to some intriguing possibilities. Purcell's piece is slightly longer and far more developed, or at least far closer to what we expect from an opera. Whereas Blow was writing with the sort of freedom which comes from not really having a true model.

For their production, Opera Lyrica used no sets and had the cast wearing variations on plain concert black with some additions and variations (wings for the chorus of cupids in Venus and Adonis, make-up for the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, black masks for the witches). The soloists from one opera formed the chorus for the other and everyone sat in a semi-circle of chairs facing the audience. This approach put a lot on the singers and their individual performances, especially as we were all sitting quite close, but some strong performances held our attention.

Esther Brazil
Esther Brazil
Esther Brazil made a very fine Dido indeed, really taking control of the role. She seemed to have strong feel for Purcell's vocal line and combined this with musicality and great personal charm. A stylish singer, she brought poise and intensity to Dido and was very moving in the final farewell. Christopher Diffy looked every inch the prince as Aeneas, though the part really gives very little scope. He captured our attention with the outburst at the end of act two, but the part is low for a tenor and did not seem to show his voice off at its best. He and Brazil developed a convincing rapport and their relationship was intensely believable.

Anna Goodhew brought style and charm to the role of Belinda, making her solo moments count and blending finely with Brazil, and one highlight of the opera was the trio in Act one with Brazil, Goodhew and Belinda Evans as the Second Woman. Jack Lawrence-Jones was a striking sorceress (sung down the octave by a tenor as may have happened in the 17th century). With his mad hair and vivid make-up he looked every inch the part, but luckily sang it straight with no funny voices. Guy Withers made a confident sailor.

Belinda Evans
Belinda Evans
In Blow's opera, which opened the evening, Belinda Evans was a poised Venus who still found space for the comedy in act two. She sings Violetta and Mimi and I was rather conscious of her reining her vibrant voice in at times. Chris Webb was a very personable Adonis and again, he and Evans developed a fine relationship. Venus and Adonis is far less well known and Blow's writing, with its use of a flexible combination of arioso and recit without large scale arias, and the blend of comedy and tragedy, is a tricky one to bring off, and I must be admitted that promising though Evans and Webb were, neither seemed to have the stylistic confidence that the cast of the Purcell did. James Hall sang finely as Cupid with great beauty of tone and a lovely sense of line. But his diction was not clear enough to make the comic moments really count.

Overall the productions could have probably done with a slightly firmer hand, notably to tone some of the comic moments down. There was a little too much mugging from chorus and singers in smaller roles, with a sense that perhaps they had been left a little too much to their own devices. This was a shame, as the soloists were poised and highly believable.

William Cole directed a lively performance from the harpsichord, with a group of four strings, all clustered on the left of the playing area. His speeds were quite brisk, and I suspect that the Dido and Aeneas was one of the fastest I have heard. This certainly did not phase his singers, who turned in some impressively fluent singing. There were times however when the string accompaniment had a hint of a scramble about it and some of the speeds were simple too fast to work well with the stage business without a separate conductor. You felt that perhaps Cole should have relaxed things just a touch.

The combination of Purcell and Blow's operas is always memorable, but it was the solo performances here , particularly Esther Brazil as Dido and Anna Goodhew as Belinda, which lifted this double bill into something special.

Opera Lyrica's double bill continues to Knightsbridge and Farley, and they return in May with La Traviata and Cosi van tutte at the 20th Century Theatre, and their Purcell/Blow double bill at St Peter's Church, Notting Hill.
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