Glenn Gould School (RCM)/Venus and Adonis, composed by John Blow, music direction by Peter Tiefenbach, stage direction by Derek Boyes, Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Nov. 4 and 5. Tickets at rcmusic.com/tickets.
For their fall opera offering, the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music mounted Venus and Adonis, which is a very early baroque opera. From an audience point of view, the production was an enjoyable, if twee experience.
John Blow (1649-1708) composed Venus and Adonis sometime around 1683 (with some musicologists saying between 1680 and 1687). The subtitle is “A masque for the entertainment of the king”, who happens to have been Charles ll.
Musicologists argue whether Venus and Adonis is the first known surviving English opera, a semi-opera, or a masque, but clearly Blow thought the latter, given the subtitle. Masques were that all-embracing courtly entertainment utilizing the full extent of the visual and performing arts, which were much beloved by the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
In the libretto, Venus, the goddess of love, (soprano Elena Howard-Scott) encourages her mortal lover Adonis (baritone Colin Mackey), to go hunting. He is gored by a wild boar and dies in her arms. A key third figure is Venus’ son Cupid (countertenor Christian Masucci Facchini), who dominates the entire piece by conversing with his mother about the nature of love, and conversing with shepherds and shepherdesses, and his coterie of Little Cupids, on the same topic.
This particular production treated Blow’s stage work as a masque by in-building an entertainment factor. While Adonis is off hunting, Act 2 finds the shepherds and shepherdesses performing Shakespeare for Venus and all the Cupids. We, and Venus and her court, are treated to scenes from Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I assume that these inserts replaced the original comic scenes that featured Cupid, his Little Cupids, and the pastoral courtiers.
These Glenn Gould singers, who were called upon to speak Shakespearean lines, did so with varying degrees of success, but they all gave it the good college try. One young man, however, was a stand-out. Baritone Ben Loyst, who was a Shepherd, a Huntsman and one of the Graces, was also Romeo and Oberon, and he was simply terrific. If he doesn’t make it as a singer, Loyst definitely has a career as an actor.
Venus and Adonis is Blow’s only stage work, perhaps because the composer had a glorious career writing both sacred and secular music while occupying the three most important musical posts in London, first as organist and choirmaster at Westminster Abbey, then at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and finally as the first Composer to the Chapel Royal. Blow was also a teacher of Henry Purcell, whose Dido and Aeneas (1688) certainly references Venus and Adonis.
Music historians agree that the libretto was written by a woman, (the sensibility being more feminine than masculine), but they can’t decide on which one. On one hand, you have Aphra Behn, the most famous woman playwright of her day, the other candidate being the unknown Anne Kingsmill.
And here’s a bit of scandal for you. In the Prologue, Cupid accuses everyone of being unfaithful by pointing out that, “At court I find constant and true/Only an aged lord or two”. In the masque’s performance before King Charles, his former mistress Mary (Moll) Davies played Venus, while his illegitimate daughter with Davies, Lady Mary Tudor, performed the role of Cupid. How’s that for art imitating life?
The music history books tell you that Venus and Adonis shows the influence of French music, particularly Lully, but I found that it also mirrors the earlier style of Monteverdi with its sing/song, up and down, and all-around vocal line.
The work is through-composed with very few defined real arias or ensembles. The vocal score is mostly made up of recitatives, or so it seemed to me, with sections of brief melodies. Only the chorales that end the Prologue and Act 3 are actual substantial tunes, so to speak.
Within Blow’s score are long dance passages which had a delightful lilt to them, and made for a most pleasant early music experience. The orchestra also played through the scene changes so music was the continuity for the production.
Music director Peter Tiefenbach, a guru of the keyboard, who is head of the school’s Chamber Opera Program, played both the harpsichord and the organ continuo, while conducting a crackerjack early ensemble comprising of a student string quartet and bassoonist, augmented by ringers from Tafelmusik (lute and recorder), thus, bringing in the heavy hitters.
And so we come to the young singers.
Soprano Howard-Scott had the most complex vocal line as Venus goes through a wide range of emotions. Blow wrote coloratura passages that showed the character both crying and laughing, as well as music calling for her to express both the sweetness of love, and the lament of despair. At this early stage of training, Howard-Scott is impressive, with a voice that soars and a coloratura of interest. She is also a very good actor, and she moves with grace. Howard-Scott is someone to watch.
Baritone Mackey has an attractive rich and warm tone that hinted at shades of power. Unfortunately, early music seemed to hem in his voice, and I would like to hear Mackey in a role that allows him to really let loose vocally. At this point in time, he is a baritone of potential.
Countertenor Masucci Facchini seemed to show quite a range, while demonstrating strength both high and low, so to speak. Sometimes countertenors run out of steam at the far reaches of their vocal output, but his voice didn’t falter in sound. There is richness there.
The various featured roles were all competently sung, and of course, a group of vocal students are going to make a boffo ensemble, since they are a collection of soloists. Kudos to Tiefenbach for finding a choral evenness.
A lot of experience lay behind this production. You had director Derek Boyes, and choreographer Marie-Josée Chartier, and set and costume designer Victoria Wallace, and lighting designer Chris Malkowski, the latter giving us warm tones to suit the lightness of the masque.
Boyes’ vision was for a buoyant production (except for the end), and although at times he strayed into cutesy, he gave his actors/singers a lively stage picture. Was it his idea to put in the Shakespeare scenes, I wonder, because it worked. Boyes’ direction of Venus, Adonis and Cupid was very detailed, and clearly his aim here was to show relationships. It was also clever to have the four Little Cupids change the set pieces in sprightly choreographed fashion.
While Chartier created some dances, she didn’t use all the music and I wonder why. Perhaps the students could only do so much, but what dances there were, were attractive if simple. The choreography for the Little Cupids showing their youth and enthusiasm, was charming.
I always like the Glenn Gould costumes for their amusing mix-and-match elements. On one hand, the ensemble looked like they scavenged through their personal wardrobes to come up with modern-day outfits as Shepherds and Huntsmen. For example, one Huntsman mezzo-soprano was actually in camouflage gear.
On the other hand, Venus’ slinky mauve slip/negligée was clearly designed by Wallace, and was fetching indeed, while Cupid’s white tunic and leggings looked both childlike and winsome. Putting the Little Cupids in pale yellow onesies was hilarious, while the three Graces sported pharmacists’ jackets over white pants, yet the look worked.
Yes there were amateur elements to the production in terms of acting, for example, but Glenn Gould is, after all, a music school, and musically, this production of Venus and Adonis was solid.
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