United Kingdom Blow, Venus and Adonis & Charpentier, Actéon: Soloists, Consorts and Ensemble from Birmingham Conservatoire / Andrew King (conductor), The Crescent Studio Theatre, Birmingham, 6.6.2015 (GR).
Cast of Venus and Adonis
Venus – Cecily Redman
Adonis – Alistair Donaghue
Cupid – Alice Brown
Cast of Actéon
Actéon – Lucinda Scott
Diane – Aimée Fisk
Junon – Ania Szypula
Co-Directors – Michael Barry & Brock Roberts
Design – Colin Judges
Costumes – Jennet & Alan Marshall
Lighting – Charlie Morgan Jones assisted by George Smith
In recent years Birmingham Conservatoire have staged a number of period music dramas, ranging from Monteverdi and Cavalli to Locke and Purcell. Two more strings were added to this impressive bow with compositions from contemporaries on opposite sides of the English Channel – John Blow and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Their respective works Venus and Adonis and Actéon comprised the 2015 Summer Baroque Opera Double Bill from the music arm of Birmingham’s City University, performed in the Studio Room of the Crescent Theatre. The Conservatoire resumed their lengthy association with early music specialist Andrew King, who conducted the two productions on show. With dual castings for the chief roles, I caught up with the fourth and final presentation on 6th June.
Blow’s Venus and Adonis is based upon an epic excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Book X) – the same passage from which Shakespeare crafted his monumental 1194 line poem. And while Blow could not hope to reproduce the beauty of the Bard’s poetry in his ‘Masque for the entertainment of the King’ his anonymous librettist chose to make one fundamental change: his Venus encourages Adonis to go hunting rather than dissuade him. This essential adaptation (not highlighted in the programme) affects in my opinion the whole mood of the narrative, and undesirably so. I found the score of Blow (using the edition of the redoubtable Clifford Bartlett) to be generally rather dry, a sensation the stage action struggled at times to lift. The position of the ensemble, closeted behind the singers, did little to boost this impression. And with a space of only 5m X 3m (approximately) in which to convey the storyline, cavort or dance within, the stage often appeared cluttered and over-crowded; this was particularly noticeable in the Prologue as Cupid extolled how love blossoms in the pastoral. With no brass – only harpsichord, recorders and strings – I thought the music that announced the hunters in Act I too bland – hardly a stimulating invitation to join the boar-chase. I found myself agreeing with Adonis’s response: Adonis will not hunt today. Cupid showed the power of her arrows in Act II, giving a lesson to the Little Cupids and acting as an agony aunt to Venus, but it was all very mundane. However the music for Act III did mirror the mood of the storyline: a wounded Adonis returns from the hunt to die on the breast of his beloved, briefly echoing his desires of Act I to taste soft delights. Then as death approaches, the cello of Mark Walkem generated a poignant moment to savour.
Actéon also tells the tale of a hunter who meets with death in the final setting, making it an ideal pairing for Venus and Adonis. Here the singing and staging of the Conservatoire students matched the lively and communicative music of Charpentier. The opening chorus of ‘Allons, marchons, courons, hastons nos pas’ from a realistic bunch of hunters in their bright red tunics, conveyed they were itching to join with their protagonist leader in blood sport. Switching to the charming grove of Diane and her nymphs, engaging in their morning ablutions, the crystal of the pure waters and silvery streams were neatly symbolised by white linen sheets: an idyllic Scene 2. Although in the version chosen, Actéon changé en biche, it meant omitting Aréthuse from Diane’s hand-maidens, Hyale (Davina Brownrigg) the nymph of the crystal pools was retained, so pertinent to the witnessed spectacle. When Actéon stumbles across the bathers and espies a ‘naked’ Diane, this perfidious mortal must be punished; yet if this was a female-only domain, why were there two males in the previous dance routine? Actéon’s fate is to be metamorphosed into a deer: but presumably because it was visually more effective this was no biche (doe); a rampant stag adorned Actéon’s head. The explanation of this and how Actéon is mauled by his own dogs is related to the hunters by Junon, producing the best individual singing of the evening from Ania Szypula. This was matched by the final excellent chorus, both soulful and triumphant. Despite any inconsistencies this was a highly entertaining interpretation of this pastorale en musique by Charpentier.