Probably first performed at the London or Windsor court in 1683, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis is a thinly veiled political satire on the amorous appetites of Charles II and his court, in the context of the considerable political instability of the day.
Ostensibly, the anonymous libretto (identified recently as having been penned by Anne Kingsmill, later Countess of Winchilsea) dramatises an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the goddess Venus falls in love with a mortal, Adonis, after he is struck by Cupid’s arrow. She encourages the timid chap to join a wild boar hunt, with tragic consequences. Interpreted as a political allegory, Adonis represents Charles and the boar that kills him symbolises the partisan factions that threatened his rule, while Venus is ‘England’, the object of Charles’ desire. At the first performance the part of Venus was sung by Moll Davies, the King’s former mistress, while Cupid was sung by their illegitimate daughter, the ten-year-old Lady Mary Tudor. One can imagine how the libretto’s flirtations, love games and sensual intimations – and its explicit eroticisms, such as Adonis’ declaration that “there is a sort of men/ Who delight in heavy chains/ Upon whom ill-usage gains/ And they never love till then” – went down with the sophisticated audience of licentious Stuart courtiers.
As performed at court, Venus and Adonis functioned as a Restoration masque, and was announced as such, as ‘A Masque for the entertainment of the King’; but when it was performed at the dancing-master Josiah Priest’s school in Chelsea in April 1684 – where Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, closely modelled on Venus and Adonis, was presented five years later –it was billed as ‘AN OPERA Perform’d before the KING’, presumably because in this new setting its masque function was no long relevant. Whatever, the work lies at the crossroads of masque, semi-opera and opera: it is through-sung, employs measured arioso throughout, and incorporates numerous and important dance elements.
Presumably the performance at the Stuart court was lavish, in imitation of the French manner to which Charles aspired and which we hear intimated in the dotted rhythms of the Overture. This Early Opera Company performance at St John’s Smith Square was, however, small in scale and somewhat reserved of manner, the circumstances, innuendos and, one imagines, crudities of the first performance tamed to genteel whimsy. Christian Curnyn and his musicians presented not a bawdy, irreverent pastoral but a disciplined and musically pleasing reading of the work, but its satirical bite and boisterous sensuality were lacking.
‘Staging’ operas at St John’s Smith Square is challenging, and here there was no attempt to evoke a pastoral milieu, or to conjure an arboreal retreat in which Venus and Adonis canoodle at the opening of Act 1. Dress was modern: a scarlet gown for Anna Dennis’ Venus, a natty blue suit for Jonathan McGovern’s Adonis and for the wee troupe of trainee Cupids white ti-shirts sporting large heart logos. Miriam Allan’s devilish red wings added a mischievous touch to Cupid’s plain black garb. Moreover, if there was little visual interpretation or representation, then there was also no physical dance, leaving us to imagine the movements inferred by the dance episodes for Shepherds and Shepherdesses, a Huntsman, the Little Cupids and the Graces.
What was not lacking, though, was lots of lovely singing. McGovern has a beguiling, attractive baritone, full of depth and colour, and here his phrasing was stylish, his diction good. Accepting the challenge to lead the hunt, McGovern plummeted dark and low: “Nothing, oh nothing is so sweet/ As for our huntsmen, that do meet/ With able coursers and good hounds to range the fields.” Described as ‘faithful’ and ‘ever tender ever kind’, this Adonis was indeed guileless and sincere, and his flirtations with Venus were subtle rather than shameless: puffed with a little pride he insisted, “Adonis will not hunt today./ I have already caught the noblest prey”, as Venus rejoindered teasingly, “No, my shepherd, haste away, Absence kindles new desire,/ I would not have my lover tire …”. A little more might have been made of his forthrightness, though, in asking Venus, “When shall I taste soft delights, and on that bosom die?”, given that this petit mort is not so much denied as delayed until Act 3 when, after his unfortunate encounter with the boar he begs, “let me on your soft bosom lie./ There I did wish to live, and there I wish to die” – a wish that finds fulfilment in a literal death.
Blow’s Venus is sensuous and imperious. After all, Venus is not just the goddess of love and beauty but also of prostitutes and lust. Anna Dennis’ manipulator was dignified rather than dissolute, but her soprano was pure and focused, and she conveyed the goddess’s tragic loss beautifully in the final recitative. A little more aggressive seductiveness – a touch of Monteverdi’s Poppea, perhaps? – might have been welcome, though. When Venus interrupts the Little Cupids’ lesson with the question, “But Cupid how shall I make Adonis constant still?”, Cupid responds, “Use him very ill” – reminding us of Adonis’ previously professed, and prophetic, desire for arousing sexual mistreatment – at which Venus issues an extravagant cackle of laughter. Here, though Dennis’ skidding cascade was skilfully executed, it garnered no more than a light chuckle in the SJSS nave. Yet, surely this should be the revelation of Venus’s decadence, if not evil?
In the allegorical Prologue, Miriam Allan was all knowing winks and impish grins as she initiated us in the erotic arts. She guided her troupe of little Cupids benignly. Presumably, their inclusion by Blow had given the children of Charles court a chance to indulge their theatrical inclinations; certainly, the five youngsters (Harriet Bannan, Éowyn Bannan, Cedric Roberts, Isabelle Stone and Siena Lenman) on this occasion exhibited exuberant thespian leanings, and they sang their tricky spelling lesson with accomplishment.
Curnyn oversaw a disciplined, tasteful musical account – a fairly light one, too, with just single strings to each part. Lovely recorder playing from Thomas Pickering and Teresa Wrann accompanied the goddess-mortal smooching (though, of course, the instrument’s erotic allusiveness only really ‘works’ if we can see the recorders at play) and Reiko Ichise (gamba), Joy Smith (harp), Lynda Sayce (theorbo and guitar) and Christopher Bucknell (harpsichord) formed a sensitive continuo group. It might have been nice to have a bit more raw boisterousness in the hunters’ calls and dance, and more sensuality in the Graces’ sarabande as they comb Venus’ hair and adorn her with bracelets of pearls. But, generally the four-strong Chorus were excellent – reminding us that when Purcell composed Dido he borrowed not only his teacher’s declamatory idiom but also the dramatic heft with which he imbued the choral numbers. Jessica Cale, winner of the Katheen Ferrier award in 2020 made a terrific contribution to the expressive impact, and Nicholas Todd, Rory Carver and William Gaunt joined her to form a fine blend, whether frivolously commenting on the decadence of the court in the Prologue, or lamenting Adonis’ death and the Queen’s wretchedness with exquisitely shaped dissonant suspensions and timbres in the closing chorus.
Musically, there was much to admire in this performance of Venus and Adonis, though a little more recklessness – both musical and dramatic – might have enlivened the refinement and restraint.