John Blow described Venus and Adonis as a masque, but for all intents and purposes, it's an opera, as fully as Dido and Aeneas is, and it should make anyone who considers the Purcell the first English opera think again. The two works have much in common in their dramatic structure, subject matter, length, and level of musical expressiveness. Based on the quality of Blow's work, it's surprising that the piece isn't frequently programmed on a double bill with Dido and Aeneas. Venus' response to the death of Adonis isn't as melodically memorable as Dido's famous lament, but it's as deeply felt and as poignant. Blow's libretto, by an anonymous writer, is superior to Nahum Tate's text for the Purcell on almost every count; the characters have more individuality and their interactions are less mannered. It even has moments of genuine humor. In one scene, Cupid comically instructs a band of adorable little cupids-in-training in the skills required to ensnare lovers. When Venus asks Cupid how to guarantee Adonis' continued affection, he replies, "Use him very ill," at which she bursts into irrepressible laughter. Blow's music is a revelation: deeply expressive, emotionally direct, richly varied, distinctively British (some of his melodies evoke Celtic folk song), witty, and always elegant. René Jacobs brings his considerable gifts as an interpreter of music of the Baroque to the little opera, and this 1998 performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Clare College Chapel Choir is luminous. The soloists are all first-rate. Soprano Rosemary Joshua as Venus, baritone Finley as Adonis, and counter tenor Robin Blaze sing radiantly, creating memorably etched characters, and the singers in the supporting roles are equally effective. Any fan of Baroque opera, or any fan of opera, for that matter, should find much to please in this stellar performance of a forgotten masterpiece.
John Blow: Venus & Adonis Review
by Stephen Eddins
|Venus and Adonis, masque|