Monday, October 11, 2010

John Blow's Venus and Adonis

Magnificat, the vocal and instrumental early music ensemble directed by Warren Stewart, opened its new season this past weekend with concert performances of the first English opera, John Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683?/1684). Blow was a musician and composer in the court of Charles II; among his students was Henry Purcell, whose later Dido and Aeneas (1689) has many echoes of and parallels with Venus and Adonis.

One striking parallel is that both operas were performed at Josias Priest's boarding school in Chelsea for "young gentlewomen." This is particularly remarkable given the frankly erotic content of both operas, but especially of Venus and Adonis. The opera was originally performed before Charles II, and was written in part as a satire of the sexual license at court, where only "the Foolish, Ugly and the Old" are faithful. In the prologue, lovers are urged to be "willing, lovesome, fond and gay," and Cupid commands, "Lovers to the close Shades retire, / Do what your kindest thoughts Inspire." On Adonis's entrance in Act One, he asks, "Venus, when shall I taste soft delights, / And on thy bosom lie?" and Venus promises to give him "freely all Delights, / With pleasant Days and easie Nights." In that first performance of the opera at court (probably in 1683), the part of Venus had been performed by one of the king's mistresses, Mary "Moll" Davis, while Cupid had been played by the 10-year-old Lady Mary Tudor, daughter of Davis and the king. That in the boarding-school performance of 1684 both these parts and that of Venus's lover Adonis were taken by unmarried young women—a note on the libretto (reproduced in facsimile in Magnificat's program) mentions that "Mr. Priest's Daughter acted Adonis"—would only have made the opera even more eyebrow-raising.

The story is taken from Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses. While embracing her son Cupid, Venus is scratched by one of his arrows, and falls in love with the beautiful youth Adonis. She warns him against hunting dangerous game, but he heedlessly tracks a wild boar to its lair and is mortally wounded. When Venus finds his body, she transforms his blood into a flower. In Venus and Adonis—the libretto, long assumed to be the work of Aphra Behn, was recently attributed to Anne Kingsmill Finch, Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York [1]—it is Venus who urges Adonis to join the hunt:

Adonis: Adonis will not Hunt today,
            I have already caught the noblest Prey.
Venus: No my Shepherd, haste away, haste away,
           Absence kindles new desires:
           I wou'd not have my Lover tired.

Unusually, Blow's opera, like Dido and Aeneas, ends tragically (in Baroque opera, myths were often rewritten to have happy endings). The dying Adonis returns to Venus: "...let me on your soft bosome lie; / There I did wish to live, and there I beg to die." The opera concludes with a lament for Venus and a final mournful chorus, clearly used by Purcell as a model for Dido's lament.

Blow's flowing melodies were performed beautifully by Magnificat (with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as the Graces). Special mention should be made of soprano Catherine Webster's Venus, countertenor José Lemos' Cupid (his Lesson was especially amusing) and bass Peter Becker's Adonis, all of whom were excellently sung and characterized. Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I'm amazed that it isn't programmed more frequently. I've been interested in Baroque opera, and this work in particular, for more than a decade and a half, but this was my first opportunity to see it performed. Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life.

Stewart has planned a typically diverse and imaginative season for Magnificat. Upcoming concerts include Charpentier's Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Midnight Mass for Christmas); an evening of music by women composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre; and Orazio Vecchi's madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso (The Twin Peaks of Parnassus). For details, see the Magnificat website.

[1] Mill, James A. (2008). "A versifying Maid of Honour": Anne Finch and the libretto for Venus and Adonis. Review of English Studies, 59 (238), 67-85.