If, even before this Purcell anniversary year has got into full swing, you are feeling Didoed-out, John Blow’s less familiar Venus and Adonis is a joyous alternative.
In Netia Jones’ delightful production for Transition Opera, it provides a perfect celebration of love for St Valentine’s Day.
We do not need Purcell’s 350th birthday to pay heed to Dido and Aeneas, widely considered the first English opera. There’s been at least half a dozen productions in London in just the past couple of years. Far less well-known is this masque-opera, concocted from Ovid by Purcell’s teacher John Blow some seven years earlier in 1682.
It’s not difficult to see why it’s considered a forerunner of the Purcell, with a hauntingly similar structure and tone. Plot is hardly the key component, with frequent interruptions of the narrative for instrumental interludes and ballets. This mixed media approach is pounced on by director/designer Netia Jones, exploiting her own brand of stylish visuals.
Technology, in the shape of sharply-conceived video projections, meets deft choreography (Megan Saunders) and some truly glorious music. Jones matches the remarkable depth and invention of the score in a witty and lively interpretation, where limitations of space and budget only occasionally register and never mar.
She’s fortunate in having a truly talented young company to work with. Baritone Dawid Kimberg is a rich and likeable Adonis and counter-tenor Andrew Radley an amusingly flighty Cupid, all pink and yellow fluffiness. Best of all is Katherine Manley’s strong and sweet soprano, a Venus with bags of dramatic potential and beauty to boot. Her lament over the gored Adonis was more moving than many a Dido I’ve seen.
All in all, it’s a superb ensemble. From the keyboard, Christian Curnyn, a ubiquitous figure on the early music scene at the moment, leads the small period band violins, viola, cello and theorbo – through the gorgeous score with impeccable grace.
As a curtain-raiser, the company performed 16 of Purcell’s love songs, ingeniously bound together as a speed dating session under Cupid/Radley’s clock-watching stewardship. The joke (which is a good one) doesn’t outstay its welcome due to Jones’ witty and varied exploration of love in all its success and failure.
Formed in 2007, under Netia Jones’ artistic and Curnyn’s music direction, Transition Opera is a great addition to London’s middle-scale opera companies. Their work to date has ranged from Scarlatti to Schoenberg, Handel to Bartok.
The coming months will bring Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, Stravinsky’s Recollections of My Childhood and the lip-smacking prospect of a Kurtg, Ligeti, Monteverdi programme. The trip to Wilton’s faded grandeur to see this group’s work is highly recommended.