This concert from the Early Opera Company, conducted by Christian Curnyn, presented John Blow’s Venus and Adonis alongside excerpts from Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke’s Cupid and Death. It created a perfectly balanced evening as what is generally seen as the first English opera, despite being described at the time as ‘A Masque for the Entertainment of the King’, rubbed shoulders with a less well known piece that really does stand at the junction between masque and opera.
Cupid and Death is a fascinating creation that premiered in 1653 during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He had banned theatre, but not music, and so by promoting the latter element and taking such steps as calling the acts ‘entries’ it successfully disguised the fact that it was really a masque by another name.
Combining two of Aesop’s fables, the dramatist James Shirley created a satire that sees the chamberlain of a country inn swap the arrows of Cupid and Death so that the former ends up killing young lovers and the latter creates a plethora of amorous elderly people! After the world feels as if it has been turned upside down, order is restored by Mercury and, while the slain youths cannot be resurrected, they do live happily in the Elysian Fields.
What the original 1653 version of the piece sounded like is simply unknown, since nothing exists of it. What does survive is Locke’s autograph manuscript of the work’s second performance in 1659, though it lacks most inner parts, meaning that any performance requires a degree of reconstruction. However, while this manuscript makes it clear which parts are attributable to Locke and which to Christopher Gibbons, the son of Orlando, it is impossible to know how much, and in what ways, it differed from the earlier version. It has been suggested though that the first incarnation had been written entirely by Gibbons, and the second represents Locke’s attempts to raise the work to another level, given that his music within it sounds superior.
Certainly, the excerpts performed here from the fourth and fifth entries included just one duet and chorus by Gibbons, and even that small section felt a little weaker than the surrounding music. That, however, was sublime with Mercury’s ‘Hence, ye profane’ being considered one of the greatest examples of recitative in England before Handel. Benjamin Appl provided an extremely engaging performance of it, while Anna Dennis let forth Nature’s ‘Fly, fly, my children’ with profound feeling.
Blow’s Venus and Adonis alters the story to be found in Shakespeare’s poem in several important respects. For example, it sees Venus actually urge Adonis to go hunting because he is reluctant to do so, and introduces a comedy scene in which Cupid provides a lesson in love to the Little Cupids. At the same time, the story has some heart-breaking moments, and this performance brought out both the comic and tragic elements. It may have been a concert performance but Keri Fuge (seen here on Tuesday as Clio in Parnasso in festa) wore a costume to make Cupid look like a moody schoolboy who Venus (in other words, his mother) had to force to take a bow at the start.
The lesson scene saw the chorus members hold up plaques, each bearing a syllable of the word ‘mercenary’ that Cupid spells out. At the other end of the spectrum, Dennis’ performance as Venus of ‘Ah, Adonis my love’ was truly mortifying in terms of the depths of despair to which it seemed to plunge. Appl’s smooth and well shaped baritone came to the fore again as Adonis, the chorus excelled in ‘Mortals below, Cupids above’ while the orchestral playing of, among other things, The Graces’ Dance was exquisite. Although the piece would have originally featured costumes and quite a lavish staging, this performance proved that it ‘only’ takes brilliant musical credentials, a good dose of spirit and a large degree of sensitivity to ensure it is experienced at its very best.
For details of all of the Early Opera Company’s recordings and forthcoming events visit the designated website.