A Rewarding Rarity by John Blow Revived in London

10/06/2019

Handel, Aminta e Fillide and Blow – Venus and Adonis: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama / Chad Kelly (conductor). Milton Court Theatre, London, 5.6.2019. (MB)

Cupid Collin Shea centre ) and chorus (c) Clive Barda

Production:
Director – Victoria Newlyn
Designs – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting – Andrew May
Video – Karl Dixon

Cast:
Aminta – Harriet Burns
Fillide – Carmen Artaza
Venus – Sîan Dicker
Adonis – Andrew Hamilton
Cupid – Collin Shay
Shepherdess – Katherine McIndoe
Shepherd – Damian Arnold

The stature of John Blow becomes clearer, it seems, with every encounter. Alas, paucity of encounters remains the problem for many of us. This was the first live performance of Venus and Adonis I had heard, let alone seen; I am delighted to report that it did not disappoint. Indeed, it brought vividly to life what so many of us know intellectually: that if Purcell’s genius will likely always remain the loftiest summit of English Restoration music, it stands far from alone; and that, moreover, Dido and Aeneas owes a great deal to the example of what is rightly considered the first English opera. When one hears Blow’s anthems, many characteristics one has hitherto considered quintessentially Purcellian are revealed to be part of a common musical language; the same is true here, and for dramaturgy as well as musical language.

Any passable performance of Dido – ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pintpot’, Raymond Leppard once called it – will fly by; so did this more than passable performance of Venus and Adonis. Conductor, Chad Kelly seemed very much in his element, continuo and orchestral playing warm, flexible, charged with dramatic meaning and atmosphere. The singers did too. Sîan Dicker sang and acted a splendidly voluptuous Venus: sexier than Dido, yet moving towards similar grief. If the latter were ultimately more generalised, that shows the final distinction between Blow’s opera and Purcell’s and is no reflection upon a fine performance indeed. Andrew Hamilton’s Adonis, perhaps not unlike Aeneas, was similarly imbued with allure: less complex, in his own way more vulnerable – he, after all, meets death – and a blanker sheet for projection in an under-acknowledged reversal of gender norms. Collin Shay’s Cupid fascinated. Presumably in conjunction with director, Victoria Newlyn, Shay presented a god of love by turns sullen, awkward – childish, one might say – who sprang to animated life when finally heeding the call to use his bow. Damian Arnold’s finely sung and acted Shepherd had one wishing there were more for him to do, the chorus from which he sprang exemplary in delivery of notes, words, stage action and that alchemy we call opera. Newlyn’s production presented Venus as an artist(e), her final words delivered movingly almost as a nightclub torch song. Video projections of the random world of Internet dating – iCupid, should we call it? – and a telling contrast between such urban modernity and the decidedly down-at-heel American hunting community from which poor Adonis had been plucked brought to contemporary life dramatic conflicts that have haunted our civilisation however far back we may care to trace.

I was less sure about her staging of Handel’s Italian cantata, Aminta e Fillide, and ultimately less sure whether staging it had been a good idea at all. This is not a dramatic piece and was never intended to be. Concert performance without stage hyperactivity would surely have served it better. One can try, of course, and I should be delighted to be proved wrong. Frenetic scene changes taking us from airport lounges to early video games were doubtless fun for those taking part, extras included, but seemed only to confirm that less would have been decidedly more. Here, Kelly seemed more constrained by what has become ‘period’ convention, vibrato-less strings sometimes grating, the music in general more regimented. However, Harriet Burns and Carmen Artaza offered some dazzling singing, especially later on, coloratura and range of colour alike showing what should really lie at the heart of this pastoral.

Mark Berry

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