Venus and Adonis
Scheen; Augustin, Mauillon; Les Musiciens du Paradis, Cuiller. Alpha 703, 44 mins. (opera), 42 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Alpha's interesting but somewhat frustrating DVD presents John Blow's lone remaining stage work, Venus and Adonis, first played before Charles II in 1683 with one of his mistresses in the main female part and their ten-year-old daughter playing Cupid. Generically, it's a masque or semi-opera, with only three named actants and very pleasant choruses and dance-music episodes.
In this 2013 performance at Caën, harpsichordist Bernard Cuiller, conducting an opera for the first time ever, fares very well with the forces of Les Musiciens du Paradis; the recorders are particularly good. The main lapse musically — and for anglophone viewers, dramatically — is the inadequate pronunciation of Anne Kingsmill's libretto. The vowels in particular leave one amazed ("loovh," "dezeer," "inspeer"); alongside the decorous, studied playfulness of Louise Moaty's direction, they evoke a certain Monty Python take on Gallic preciosity.
It's too bad, since Blow's score is beautiful, and, visually, so is Moaty's painterly production, with candlelight playing magically off beautiful all-black period costumes and historically informed dancing. Venus and Adonis lasts under an hour; Alpha appends Blow's twenty-six-minute Ode to St. Cecilia — everyone elsewrote one, after all — and a sixteen-minute-long "making of" documentary, quite interesting and suggesting that Moaty's highly stylized mise-en-scènemight well have communicated more effectively if seen live in the theater. Céline Scheen, vocalizing with beauty and grace, looks far more apt as Venus — maybe a French '20s cinema idea of Venus, flirting and enjoyably vain — than pleasant-looking baritone Marc Mauillon looks as Adonis. Trained in the style, he offers a not especially attractive tone, and he seems to get not one single vowel sound correct. Treble Grégoire Augustin — an excessively sober Cupid — has a pretty tone that doesn't always reach phrase endings.
The briefer Blow work continues the aesthetic — black costumes, heavily gestural movement — which suits the celebration of music's patron saint rather less; the filming doesn't reveal much pattern or detail. Two singers here stand out vocally, having also served well in the semi-opera's ensemble — Anne-Marie Beaudette for a beautifully liquid soprano and American tenor Paul Getchell for a ductile, charming tone, as well as genuine English vowel sounds. Why didn't Cuiller have him take an hour and coach everybody else?
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