> Opera and Oratorio
Venus and Adonis
Daneman, Thomas; Williams; Theatre of the Ayre, Kenny. Texts. Wigmore Hall Live WHLive 0043
John Blow's Venus and Adonis (ca.1693) is a cautionary reproach to the old saw "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Absence can also make the life grow shorter, as Venus learns to her detriment. At her urging, the reluctant Adonis leaves her bed for the hunt and is gored to death by a wild boar. Among the more curious features of this unconventional masque, composed for the Stuart court, is the subversion of customary male–female interactions. Here, it's the woman who wants her "alone time." When Venus turns to Cupid for advice on how to keep her lover, the cherub cynically advises her to "Use him very ill," the evolution of which sentiment can be found on the shelves of any bookstore. The discovery, two years ago, that Blow's long anonymous librettist was a woman, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, goes a long way toward explaining this audacious point of view. Blow's music matches the cheekiness of the Countess's libretto with sinuous turns, flirtatious filigree and, in the case of Cupid's lesson to his henchmen, unbridled mockery of rote schoolroom repetition.
On the vocal side, this performance, recorded live at Wigmore Hall in May 2010, is a bit too well-behaved for such a sensual piece. Cupid is both narrator and instigator, but Elin Manahan Thomas misses opportunities to relish the character's power or demonstrate his mischievous side. She is strongest in her lesson to the mini-Cupids, sung with authentic schoolyard nasality by the Salisbury Cathedral Girls' Choir. Sophie Danemen (Venus) and Roderick Williams (Adonis) know the power of caressing notes and lingering alluringly over consonants, with particular attention to the sexy "s" that helpfully ends each character's name. But Daneman's languorous delivery makes her exhortations to Adonis to "make haste away" seem passive-aggressive; it's no wonder Adonis doesn't want to leave. Elizabeth Kenny, lutenist and director of Music of the Ayre, provides vigorous, propulsive instrumentals that explore the extremes in the music with more gusto. Especially in the overture, the sweetness of the violins is almost painful, foreshadowing the lovers' tragic end. Unfortunately, while the recorders lend a period pastoral sound, their droopy pitch drags the singers down.
The three soloists are more evocative in the recording's opener, Blow's ménage à trois setting of "Cloe found Amintas lying." Blow supports Dryden's text about the lovers' sighing and repeated kissing with the musical equivalent of heavy breathing. Here, Daneman, Thomas and Williams are not shy about giving full rein to the passion of the music as their voices swell and intertwine, while retaining a strong sense of individual desire.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER