Notes and Editorial Reviews
Venus and Adonis
Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs, cond; Amanda Forsythe (
); Tyler Duncan (
); Mireille Lebel (
); Boston Early Music Fest Vocal/Ch Ens
CPO 777 614-2 (65:21
Text and Translation)
class="ARIAL12bi">Welcome, Ev’ry Guest. Chloe Found Amyntas Lying All in Tears.
Ground in g
Venus and Adonis
is an opera or masque (at the time, an opera intended for royal presentation) composed by John Blow in or around 1683. It isn’t the earliest English work of its kind to be set to music without spoken dialogue, though it is the first whose score is known to have survived. A tally of its predecessors yields much of interest. The great playwright Ben Jonson wrote that Nicolas Lanier’s setting of one of his masques in 1617 was completely composed, and in “stylo recitativo,” while William Davenant penned the libretto in 1656 for an all-sung opera titled
The Siege of Rhodes
, with music by Henry Cooke, Henry Lawes, and Matthew Locke. Two other operas composed around that time, Richard Flecknoe’s
Ariadne Deserted by Theseus
The Marriage of Oceanus and Brittania
, were also sung without spoken dialogue. Whether these or other operas furnished Blow with any English precedent to draw upon is impossible to determine, though the lack of any similar dramatic works in his career may indicate a commission or request of some kind.
The opera’s subject is well known, but here, too, a mystery arises. In other versions of the myth, Venus tries to persuade her lover Adonis not to go hunting; he refuses, leaves, then dies. Blow’s librettist, Anne Kingsmill, a maid of honor to the Duchess of York, reverses the roles, making it Venus who repeatedly demands that Adonis go forth to do battle via hunting, while Adonis wishes to stay with her. The reason for this inversion has never been explained, but that one existed is universally acknowledged. Royal masques (and French opera-ballet, such as Charles II enjoyed and occasionally took part in at Versailles while in exile) always operated at multiple propagandistic levels, and the little we know about the opera’s first performance is that it was performed at court with Mary “Moll” Davis, one of Charles II’s former mistresses and an actress of some ability, as Venus, while her daughter by the King, Lady Mary Tudor, was Cupid. (She would have been about 10 years old at the time of
Venus and Adonis
. Later she would marry three times, always into the nobility, and have four children, two of whom were hanged for treason as Jacobites.) About one of the opera’s subtextual political meanings we are reasonably certain, then: The presence of Mary Tudor amounted to recognition in her father’s eyes before his court. Beyond that, we can only guess about Venus’s harsh behavior. Charles II was known among other personal qualities for his great discretion, and his court records imitate their master in this.
This studio recording followed by almost a year the Boston Early Music Festival’s double-bill performance of
Venus and Adonis
paired with Charpentier’s
. I saw that production in late 2008, with all the trimmings, scholarly and entertaining, that the BEMF bestows on its operatic productions. None of the visuals are available here, of course, but the production’s stylishness and vitality under the dual leadership of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs are palpable. Amanda Forsythe combines a radiantly focused soprano with excellent enunciation and a dramatic coloration of the text. Surely other fanciers of archival operatic performance besides myself would proclaim “My Shepherd, Will You Know the Art” a superb example of shading and phrasing if it were only hip-deep in tics, rumble, restricted frequency response, and scratchy background noise on an acoustical 78 rpm shellac disc. She is well matched in all respects by Tyler Duncan’s darkly suave baritone. His especially fine lower extension is heard to advantage in “You Who the Slothful Joys of City Hate.” Finally, there’s Mireille Lebel as Cupid, a relatively simple part as written, and suited to a talented 10-year-old probably trained in singing for several years. Lebel gives us characterization, a great deal of color, and I suspect more in the way of delicately executed figurations than Mary Tudor managed.
I can’t claim to have listened to all the available competition. Of those I’ve heard, Philip Pickett’s vigorous, sharply accented account (Decca 473713) is fortunate enough to have the rich-voiced Catherine Bott as Venus, though neither oratorio-like Michael George nor the harpsichord-laden continuo do much for me. Elizabeth Kenny/Theatre of the Ayre (Wigmore Hall Live 43) has a superior Adonis in Roderick Williams, but I find Sophie Daneman not as vocally or dramatically as interesting as either Forsythe or Bott, while Elin Manahan Thomas seems too hard-edged for Cupid.
Given its 50-minute length, the BEMF folks supply three additional pieces that were not sung live in the Chamber Opera series.
Welcome, Ev’ry Guest
is the opening number to Blow’s song collection
, published in 1700. Forsythe’s control of agility and dynamics come to the fore in this virtuoso piece.
Chloe Found Amyntas Lying All in Tears
is a setting of a Dryden poem published in 1693. It is a mock pastoral: The shepherd Amyntas begs for a kiss from, and is ridiculed by, his Chloe, who requires three verses before she repents (with some risqué play on words). Blow has great fun portraying Amyntas’s quasi-pathos, complete with elaborate chromaticism and madrigalisms, and Chloe’s cruel, blithely uncaring response. The trio of two tenors and a bass-baritone produce a fine sound, with excellent intonation, and the slow, pointed skipping of Chloe’s rhythms by the continuo are highlights.
Finally, the Ground in G Minor spotlights the stylish and technically expert work of Robert Mealy and Peter Spissky. I can’t claim much familiarity with the latter, but Mealy is a fixture at many early-music festivals, as well as a professor of early music at Yale. He’s on several records, but seldom in any solo capacity—would that were to change, based on several instrumental concerts I’ve seen.
The sound is generally good and close for the vocalists, as it should be, though I note one oddity in
Venus and Adonis
: Forsythe’s microphone audibly diminishes in volume in the middle of her repeat of “hounds” on F in “Hark, Hark, the Hunters; Hark, Hark, the Hounds!” This should have been fixed before release.
That very minor blemish aside, this is a first-rate release in all respects. BEMF has yet another highly successful operatic recording to its credit.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Venus and Adonis by John Blow
Mireille Lebel (Mezzo Soprano),
Amanda Forsythe (Soprano),
Tyler Duncan (Baritone)
Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra,
Boston Early Music Festival Choir
Written: ?1681; England
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