Monday 4 April 2022

The very particular sound-world of 17th century London: Blow's Venus and Adonis from Early Opera Company

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Old Palace of Whitehall (where Blow's Venus and Adonis was premiered)
by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675

John Blow: Venus and Adonis (1683)
Anna Dennis, Jonathan McGovern, Miriam Allen, Early Opera Company, conductor: Christian Curnyn
St John's Smith Square 2 April 2022 (★★★★)

John Blow's Acis & Galatea is the fascinating intersection of two traditions, the English Masque and Italian opera. Probably written in 1683, the earliest surviving manuscript source describes it as 'A masque for the entertainment of the king' and as such it had the requisite structure with an emphasis on dance and the participation of members of the Royal court (King Charles II's illegitimate daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, and her mother, the former actress Moll Davies). 

But musically it is through composed and coherent in structure in a way that earlier 17th century Royal masques were not, and Blow was clearly influenced by the idea of opera; both Italian and particularly French opera which was experienced to a greater extent by the English aristocracy during the interregnum when the future Charles II spent time at the court of King Louis XIV. 

All this makes the work iconic and a little gem, but it doesn't make it easy to perform. The last time I saw it, Blackheath Halls Opera gave the work an inventive modern spin in a staging that did a lot to solve the work's problems. 

On Saturday 2 April 2022, Christian Curnyn directed the Early Opera Company in a performance of Blow's Venus and Adonis at St John's Smith Square, with Anna Dennis as Venus, Jonathan McGovern as Adonis, Miriam Allan as Cupid and a small chorus of children as the little Cupids. 

For all it's iconic status, the opera itself is slightly curious and does not really play itself, it begins in comedy and ends with a mourning chorus of great expressive power. The libretto does not labour the story of Venus and Adonis and around half the running time is taken with comedy that is clearly satire on court manners. The libretto is thought to be by Anne Kingsmill (later Countess of Winchilsea), who was a Maid of Honour to Charles II's brother James' wife and in 1685 Blow would be named as one of King James II's private musicians. 

Musically this was a performance of a high order. From the opening notes of the overture it was clear that we were in safe hands and the sound world was a long way from the later Baroque. It was a small ensemble, Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber violin, Louise Hogan viola, Christopher Suckling bass violin, Reiko Ichise gamba, Joy Smith harp, Lynda Sayce theorbo/guitar, Christopher Bucknall harpsichord, Thomas Pickering and Teresa Wrann recorders. And it was clear that the performers not only relished Blow's music, but the very particular sound-world of 17th century London.

Anna Dennis made a poised, expressive yet somewhat cool Venus. This was a performance very much about the expressive beauty of Blow's vocal line, and she really came into her own in the final scene, with Adonis' death. In the love scene in Act One she seemed somewhat cool and disdainful. Jonathan McGovern was a very civilised Adonis, and both singers brought out the sense of flexibility in the vocal line; the work is written in a sort of continuous arioso and here it was in very expressive hands. By contrast, Miriam Allen's cupid seemed to be in a different production, playing up the comedy in a delightful way and in Act Two interacting the charming chorus of five children playing the little cupids. The main chorus was just five singers (Jessica Cale, Nicholas Todd, Rory Carvery, William Gaunt), no alto but a high tenor, with the singers taking the small solo roles and creating a strong atmosphere.

And yet. The performance felt like something of a missed opportunity. The singers were off the book and there were small elements of staging, there was even a small acting area. But what the event needed was a director's eye. Act One in particular, with the first scene between Venus and Adonis felt as if it was in a very different opera to the Prologue and Act Two.

This was also quite a short evening. The opera was presented on its own, and it was a shame that the opportunity was not taken to give a selection of Blow's other theatre music in the first half as we certainly do not get enough of his work in the concert hall. That said, no performance of Venus and Adonis negligible and this one with its high level of musical values and expressive vocal lines took us right into the sound-world of those early performances.

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