VENUS AND ADONIS
First performed: circa 1683
Composer: John Blow
Libretto: Unknown, possibly Anne Kingsmill
Opera in England began in the court of Charles II, the merry monarch who reopened theatres and restored enjoyment after the gloomy, god-fearing government of Oliver Cromwell. (Lord protect us from Protectors!)
There had been masques, of course, since the reign of Good Queen Bess: spoken plays, merging dance, music, and spectacle, many of them written by Jonson.
Venus and Adonis is called a Masque for the King’s Entertainment – but it is, properly speaking, an opera, and the first in English. (We don’t know, though, when it first appeared – sometime between 1680 and 1685, scholars guess.)
It’s a royal entertainment. Blow was attached to the Chapel Royal, and would later be private musician to James II. Moll Davis, one of Charles’s (many) mistresses, played Venus, and Lady Mary Tudor, her daughter by Charles, played Cupid. The gentlemen and children of the Chapel Royal sang in the chorus, joined by professional actresses, and the king’s 24 Violins played the music.
Venus and Adonis is an attractive little work, full of skill and invention.
The opera opens with a French overture, slow-quick-slow, in the style of Lully. Blow’s score is more robust than what an Amazon reviewer called “the precious and even excessively refined if not in a way effeminate and soft-bellied music of Lully”. (The brilliant, mercurial Charles would have been better company than Louis.)
Much of the opera is picturesque entertainment, rather than drama; Adonis, notably, is gored offstage, and between acts.
Cupid cavorts with shepherds and shepherdesses; Venus and Adonis embrace each other on a couch, tenderly amorous; hunters sing a rousing chorus, “Lachne has fast’ned first”; the Graces dance sarabands and gavatts; and the Cupids learn how to spell “mercenary” (on one note, amusingly) – a parody of the choirboys’ spelling lessons. The opera ends with a moving choral lament, a beautiful four-part ensemble.
And all in little over 50 minutes!
Listen to: R. Joshua, G. Finley, R. Blaze, with the Clare College Chapel Choir and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by René Jacobs, 1999. Harmonia Mundi.
Catherine Bott and Michael George, with the New London Consort, conducted by Philip Pickett. Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre.
- Cupid (soprano): Lady Mary Tudor
- Venus (soprano): Mary (Moll) Davies
- Adonis (baritone)
- Shepherd (contralto or countertenor)
- Shepherdess (soprano)
- Huntsman (contralto or countertenor)
- Cupids, shepherds and shepherdesses, huntsmen, and courtiers (chorus)