Saturday 2 October 2021

From 17th century masque to TV reality show: Blackheath Halls Opera's imaginative take on John Blow's Venus and Adonis

John Blow: Venus and Adonis - Claire Lees, Harry Thatcher - Blackheath Halls Opera
John Blow: Venus and Adonis - Claire Lees, Harry Thatcher - Blackheath Halls Opera

John Blow Venus and Adonis; Claire Lees, Harry Thatcher, Rebecca Leggett, dir: James Hurley, cond: Christopher Stark; Blackheath Halls Opera at Blackheath Halls

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 September 2021
Blow's masque for the entertainment of the King given an inventive modern spin in a superb community achievement

Large scale community projects are tricky at the best of times, but putting one on in the present situation is particularly impressive. So it is all credit to Blackheath Halls Opera that they have returned to public performance with John Blow's Venus and Adonis at Blackheath Halls (30 September 2021). Directed by James Hurley the production featured Claire Lees as Venus, Harry Thatcher as Adonis, Rebecca Leggett as Cupid, plus Eleanor Kemp, Lucas Artisio, Bill Semple and Miranda Ostler (all students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) as the shepherds and shepherdess plus Blackheath Halls Chorus, Blackheath Halls Youth Opera Company, pupils from Greenvale School and Blackheath Halls Orchestra directed from the harpsichord by Christopher Stark

The company is presenting two performances per evening for four evenings this week, with two different companies of performers apart from the three principals, so I caught the Blue Company at its first performance on 30 September.

Blow's Venus and Adonis is a strange yet iconic work. Referred to nowadays as an opera, though it is sung-through it was described at the time of its first performance (in 1683) as a masque and indeed the ratio of singing to orchestrally accompanied dance makes it very masque-like. The first performance was for King Charles II at court, but we now know that there was a subsequent performance at Josiah Priest's school where the earliest known performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas took place. The two works are so similar in concept that these circumstances and other factors help suggest a similar court origin for Purcell's opera.

John Blow: Venus and Adonis - Blackheath Halls Opera
John Blow: Venus and Adonis - the Little Cupids - Blackheath Halls Opera

Dramatically Venus and Adonis is strange too, because the libretto (probably by the poet Anne Finch) diverges from the traditional story and instead of Adonis wanting to go hunting, it is Venus who urges him to (despite the fact that the two have barely got it together), thus she is culpable in his demise. And mid-way through the opera there is a comic scene where Cupid instructs all the little cupids in the morals at court!

The result is to make the opera admired and performed in concert more than it is staged. And frankly, when I saw that Blackheath Halls Opera was performing it I wondered what on earth director James Hurley was going to with his large cast. In fact, Hurley's concept was extremely imaginative, it leaned into the oddities of the work whilst coming up with a setting which provided an active role for the chorus, youth chorus and children.

The setting was a modern reality show where a suitress (Venus played by Claire Lees) was selecting a suitor from a group of candidates, there were artificial dates to be gone on, a horde of little cupids to swarm about the stage, elimination rounds for the men (the hunt) and the whole paraphernalia of a reality show. Yet Venus only has eyes for Adonis (Harry Thatcher) and when he is eliminated her grief is real. Thus the production neatly brought in a modern equivalent of the artificiality of court life in which real emotions finally disturb.

Rachel Szmukler's set showed us the TV studio set as well as the back rooms, filling both the stage and part of the area in front, the result was a production which teemed with life. The 'dance' movements were all carefully thought through in terms of action and drama, and the vocal moments were never overshadowed by the busyness. There was a TV audience, sat at the back, with members of the company providing the TV crew and such. Two of the students from Trinity Laban (Eleanor Kemp and Miranda Ostler) were part of the TV crew, whilst the other two (Lucas Artisio and Bill Semple) became two of the contestants. Rebecca Leggett's Cupid was the presenter of the show.

I have to confess that I was entranced. Claire Lees made a delightful Venus, at first rather poised and distant, amused by the proceedings but then drawn in and in her final scene remarkably powerful and intense, pulling the focus and drama just as was intended whilst singing stylishly. Harry Thatcher was everything you might want from such a hero, tall and distinguished looking he too moved from posturing to something more, all sung with a fine, focused, dark baritone. Rebecca Leggett made a charming (female) Cupid, stylish and witty where needed but focusing the character as slightly more serious than original. Blow's music virtually eschews aria in favour of a sort of fluid arioso and all three singers handled this stylishly. The four singers from Trinity Laban provided fine support, each with a moment in the spotlight yet all contributing to the ensemble.

This was a real community enterprise with a stage almost overflowing with people, yet the production gave everyone a particular role and the drama unfolded with a lovely sense of engagement and achievement. I was particularly impressed by the children as the young cupids who were a feature of the presentation of the TV show and were clearly having a whale of a time.

John Blow: Venus and Adonis - Claire Lees - Blackheath Halls Opera
John Blow: Venus and Adonis - Claire Lees - Blackheath Halls Opera

Blackheath Halls Orchestra, a non-professional ensemble which meets regularly at Blackheath Halls, provided great support and made strong contributions in the dance numbers. A particular highlight was the fine continuo playing from Christopher Stark on harpsichord and Marco Russo on cello.

In an age when such TV shows as Love Island or The Bachelor are taken completely seriously, the playful concept behind Hurley's production worked brilliantly, yet the performance took nothing away from Blow's music and created a wonderful array of performance opportunities for the members of the large cast. The result was a real community achievement and the sheer enjoyment of all the performers really showed.

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