May 16th, 2011

Florentine Opera, “Venus and Adonis” and “Dido and Aeneas,”

No, it wasn’t the Baroque opera version of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” What it was, was a double bill of two of the English language’s oldest operas, “Venus and Adonis,” by John Blow, and “Dido and Aeneas,” by Blow’s more famous (to us) student, Henry Purcell.

“Venus and Adonis” was first staged as a court masque in 1683, and featured the then King of England’s mistress as Venus, and the role of Cupid was given to their nine-year old illegitimate daughter. The libretto deals with the myth of Venus and her lover, Adonis, the young man of such beauty that his name has become a byword for male attractiveness. The piece opens with Cupid addressing Venus’ courtiers, decrying their general faithlessness, and recommending that they instead enjoy the pastoral pleasures of the shepherds they are dressed as. Venus flirts with the handsome Adonis in her bower. He indicates that he is well disposed to stay with her, but when a group of hunters pass in search of a mighty boar that has been endangering the countryside, Venus essentially tells Adonis to run away and play with the big boys for a while. In the second scene, Venus gives Cupid humorous “lessons” in how lovers should behave, which he passes on to his assistants. Cupid gets a bit of his own back by telling Venus that if she followed her own advice, she would treat Adonis badly in order to assure his fidelity.

Then, Adonis enters, having been mortally wounded by the great boar. He sings a duet with Venus and dies in her arms. Venus and her courtiers sing a lament.

Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” by contrast, was first performed by the students of a girls’ school and seldom performed professionally after that until the 20th century. It deals with a portion of the story of Aeneas, the Trojan refugee, who has been given refuge by Dido, Queen of Carthage. Aeneas has proposed marriage to the Queen, who accepts him. However, forces inimical to the Queen raise a spirit disguised as the god Mercury, who appears to Aeneas and commands him to continue his journey and establish a Trojan colony in Italy. Obedient to the seeming god’s command, Aeneas prepares to leave. The wicked witches are pleased and prepare spells to destroy Aeneas at sea.

Dido is distraught at Aeneas’ preparations, and, even when he declares that he will defy the god and remain with her, Dido rejects him and sends him on his way. She then dies of grief.

Baritone Craig Verm sang both heroes, bringing fair gravitas to the role of Adonis, making him a hunky hero in the Herculean mode rather than the pretty boy one usually thinks of. Given the Jacobean wig of flowing locks, leather kilt, and bare chest, this was no mean feat. The role of Aeneas was a bit more innately dignified, and Verm did well with that part also, singing richly and well. Soprano Greer Davis sang both the roles of Venus and Belinda, Dido’s confidante, and sang with a clear beauty in both parts. Patricia Risley had a deep mellow voice that gave good authority to the part of the Carthaginian queen, but seemed a bit muffled at times. Ian Howell was a pleasing counter-tenor in the parts of Cupid and faux-Mercury, and Dani Kuepper was quite lovely as the principal dancer (and show choreographer) for both operas.

The ensemble members were given handsome Jacobean outfits of white, gold, and shades of ecru, whereas the principals had fantasy-inspired costumes that resembled thefts from the wardrobe department of “Xena, Warrior Princess,” which were nice, but may have had some unintended humorous effects.

Orchestra conductor Christopher Larkin lead a small ensemble of mostly strings which played elegantly and supported the singers to just the right degree.

We were very happy to have seen this production of these comparatively rare pieces and enjoyed them both thoroughly.

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