John Blow's Venus and Adonis preceded Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by less than a decade and is often considered the first English opera. For all its undoubted influence on Purcell's masterwork it has a different flavor. Considerable interest lies in the perhaps specifically feminine qualities of its libretto, written by either Anne Finch or Aphra Behn. Blow's musical models were French, with a pomp-filled Lully-style overture, lots of in-group court allusions, and a sober contrapuntal finale that, it's true, doesn't amount to much compared with Purcell's shattering final lament. However, Blow's work is at its best where he's most individual. The work proceeds without arias or set pieces, seeming to unfold from the perspective of Venus in the classical myth, and it's very sexy in places. Sample the anticipatory duet of Venus and Adonis (track 9) before Venus sends Adonis off to the hunt, diverging from the myth, so that presumably the pleasures will be all the sweeter on his return. (Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way.) There are several good recordings of this little work, but this one, made live at London's Wigmore Hall in 2010, can be highly recommended. The biggest among the several major attractions is simply the clear articulation of each of the singers; the English libretto is reprinted in the booklet but is just about entirely unnecessary. Credit is due not only to the cast, with soprano Sophie Daneman as Venus a relaxed, flirty standout, but also to the superb small Theatre of the Ayre ensemble under the direction of theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny. The balance, as it almost never is in live opera recordings, is perfect here, and the entire piece moves along in a lively way. The opera is introduced by a series of short vocal and instrumental pieces, from England and France, just as English courtiers of the 1680s would likely have heard it. A superior release.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Venus and Adonis|