Friday, 13 March 2020

Before opera what? Matthew Locke's 'Cupid and Death' and John Blow's 'Venus and Adonis'

John Blow
John Blow
Matthew Locke & Christopher Gibbons Cupid and Death, John Blow Venus and Adonis; Anna Dennis, Keri Fuge, Benjamin Appl, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A fascinating pairing of music from one of the last 17th century English masques and the first surviving English opera

Our knowledge of how English opera developed in the 17th century is, to a certain, extent hampered by the lack of survival of musical sources. The Stuart court masque, rather remarkably, continued as a form during the Interregnum and there seems to have been a movement towards operatic drama, leading to the full-blown operatic experiments which took place during the reign of Charles II. The masterpiece of this latter genre is, undoubtedly, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, but that was preceded in 1683 by John Blow's opera Venus and Adonis (the earliest surviving English opera), and that in turn was preceded by, what?

As a partial answer to this question, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company performed John Blow's Venus and Adonis at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 12 March 2020, preceded by a selection of music from Matthew Locke and Christopher Gibbons'  masque Cupid and Death, with Anna Dennis (soprano), Keri Fuge (soprano) and Benjamin Appl (baritone).

The masque Cupid and Death, with words by playwright John Shirley and music by Matthew Locke (1621-1677) and Christopher Gibbons (1615-1671), son of Orlando Gibbons, was premiered in 1653, presented by the impresario William Davenant as entertainment for the Portuguese Ambassador. Evidently Davenant managed to get round Oliver Cromwell's ban on plays by emphasising the musical aspects of the performance, and whilst Cupid and Death is still a masque it moves closer towards opera with the fourth and fifth Entries (Acts), which we heard at the Wigmore Hall, almost entirely musical, i.e. pushing the form closer towards opera. And in 1656, Davenant (who had spent time in exile in Paris in the 1640s) presented what is considered to be the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes with music by five composers including Matthew Locke. Alas, it does not survive.



Cupid and Death describes the trick played on Cupid and Death by the chamberlain of the inn where they are staying. Their arrows are swapped, so Cupid's darts kill people and Death's re-invigorates them and makes them fall in love. The Fourth Entry starts with a lament from Mother Nature (Anna Dennis) about the change in the order of things, and then the Fifth Entry is concerned with the appearance of Mercury (Benjamin Appl), summoned by Nature, who puts everything to rights.

It is not the most dramatic of scenarios, but is full of intriguing music, and of course peppered with dance movements. The surviving score dates from 1659, and is Matthew Locke's short score (a precious survival), we are not sure quite what the original 1653 version was like. It was performed by an ensemble of two violins, viola, harpsichord, theorbo, harp and cello with a vocal ensemble as chorus (Miriam Allen, Jeremy Budd, Laurence Kilsby, Brian McAlea), who also provided all the other smaller solo roles.

Shirley's words are not the most succinct, and there were times when I wondered what on earth the character was singing about. But Locke responded with fluid arioso which was very expressive. Anna Dennis made a vividly communicative Nature, lamenting the change to the natural order of things, whilst Benjamin Appl gave us a dramatic Mercury. Locke's vocal writing could be quite wide-ranging and almost athletic at times, aiming for dramatic expression rather than beauty. Jeremy Budd popped up as a lover, with Miriam Allen as Cupid and Brian McAlea as Death.

Locke's instrumental writing was elegant and engaging, with some lovely rich textures. This fragment is an important survival, but the performers made it more than that. A delight to listen to, you wondered why we do not hear more music by Matthew Locke!

John Blow's Venus and Adonis was premiered at the court of Charles II. Though the work is described as 'A Masque fo the Entertainment of the King', it is most definitely an opera. Not only is it through composed but it has a coherent musico-dramatic structure. It is Blow's only full-scale theatrical work, he wrote mainly sacred music, anthems, songs and instrumental pieces, it was his friend and pupil Henry Purcell who took things further.

Venus and Adonis was premiered with Charles II's mistress, the actress Moll Davies as Venus and his illegitimate daughter Mary Tudor as Cupid. Unusually for a court masque, it has a tragic ending though on the way we have some delightful raillery between Cupid and Venus. It starts with a prologue for Cupid (Keri Fuge) and Shepherds, before introducing Venus (Anna Dennis) and Adonis (Benjamin Appl). She sends him away to hunt, leading to a delightful scene between Venus and Cupid about how to attract men, but Adonis is killed during the hunt and the opera ends with a tragic scene between the two.

Blow hardly writes arias as such, the whole piece is written as flexible arioso and clearly, though the music was continuous, the words were paramount. This is music designed to heighten the words and their meaning. Anna Dennis made a vibrant and seductive Venus, with Benjamin Appl as a huskily attractive Adonis, interacting via two striking duets or sung dialogues, from the seductively attractive cries of 'Venus' and 'Adonis' at the opening, to Venus' distress at the close. Keri Fuge was a trenchant, earthy Cupid, dressed as a naughty schoolboy, and she made the most of her lesson scene in Act Two.

The instrumental music which punctuates the piece is quite significant, and Curnyn and his players (two recorders being added to the line-up from part one) made it count, creating and expressive whole. The chorus had two major moments, a striking and strongly developed chorus at the end of the prologue, 'In these sweet groves', and the closing chorus, a powerfully expressive way to end the opera.

Both works in the concert could easily have fallen into the museum category, important and interesting, but what Curnyn and his performers did was make them live again, giving us a taste of the tantalising birth of English opera.

Update: Bass Brian McAlea was a last minute replacement for William Gaunt, my apologies for not picking up on this in the original version of this review
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