Celebrating Opera Lafayette’s twenty-fifth season, Ryan Brown has brought a rare and truly exquisite small gem of an opera to Washington audiences. To do so, Brown has left his more familiar continental excavations of early operatic repertoire and jumped the Channel to England to the court of Charles II where, in John Blow’s composition, he has found a kind of ur-operatic work full of beautiful music and one offering many emotional colors. In this work, Brown has cemented his pre-eminence as one who understands, mines, and delivers the highest musicianship with his early music players. This production showcases the talents of Thomas Dunford on lute and as Musical Director.
Venus and Adonis was a creation that splendidly suited the racy Restoration court of King Charles II. This particular Charles had to hide out in his early years on the Continent, many in Paris, during the period known as Interregnum that was inaugurated when Charles’ Papa was beheaded. Charles II brought back to the English court many Frenchified customs, cultivated high fashion and other extravagances, and installed women on the stage. He flaunted his own taste for feminine pulchritude, and composer Blow took him at his word by casting the king’s former lover as the Queen of Love and their pre-adolescent daughter as Venus’ son Cupid. The result: a party piece at court full of cheek and insider innuendo.
For years the libretto was thought to have been penned by Aphra Behn, deemed by many to be the first professional playwright and feminist. Its subject of Venus’ romantic obsession for the drop-dead gorgeous Adonis was perhaps simply too hot to handle for a “nice” female courtier imbedded in that society to own, and only relatively recently have academic historians settled on Anne Kingsmill (later Finch) as the real librettist. In any event, Kingsmill Finch wrote a paean to romantic love that encouraged excessive pleasure-seeking by both men and women. She also delivers more than a few punches to court society: “Courtiers, there is no faith in you,/ You change as often as you can:/ Your women they continue true/ But till they see another man. (And mind, originally this all sung by the ten-year old illegitimate daughter with both parents in the room and one on stage with her.)
In case we didn’t get the Hollywood Connection, on stage in this production enters Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt – well, if they could sing. But darn, if Lea Desandre as Venus and Douglas Williams as her Adonis don’t match up as remarkable stand ins. Several, in particular the “less feeble courtiers” in the audience, positively gasped.
Luckily for them and us, they both possess gorgeous voices as well. Desandre’s instrument delivers the pure Baroque-style with seeming effortless runs. But she also fills the role with a rich warmth and even dark, complex notes that to my ear only enrich the style. Williams’ rich bass-baritone sound startled me on first hearing. It seemed larger, stronger than one expects in this repertoire – more Don Giovanni, which in fact is a role coming up for him, than Adonis. But as he settled in, there was a delightful sparkle and nimbleness in his delivery. Williams also delivered the strongest dramatic moment of the evening, entering mortally wounded, when he conveyed both surprise and heart-wrenching tragic awareness of his own draining of life.
The other singers in this chamber work brought contrast and rich variety to the work. I was particularly taken with soprano soloist Véronique Filloux for her focused and delightfully balanced sound and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody who has a superbly rich and flexible voice and great affinity for this style of music. Sarah Shafer as Cupid has a lovely instrument though, perhaps hoping for a precocious ten-year old, I thought she was somewhat miscast in the role. Daniel Moody has a very distinctive attack in his approach to singing countertenor and a vivid stage presence. Patrick Kilbride has a powerful voice which can rip through the tenor demands of this opera.
The orchestra was as always superb. I particularly found Margaret Owens on Baroque oboe and Nina Stern on various recorders as startlingly fresh, while the continuo of Thomas Dunford (lute), Loretta O’Sullivan (cello,) and Violaine Cochard (Harpsichord) yielded the deepest pleasure.
Watching Dunford first laying his cheek on his instrument, then following the sound flow out in the air of the room, then coming back and intently watching and breathing with Desandre was one of the most beautiful lessons ever shared with me of true music-making and one I shall treasure.
There were two disappointments for me. Dunford’s lute playing was so exceptional and his understanding of the special intimate relationship of singer and lute so profound, I was sad that in the delivery of the John Dowland and Henry Purcell songs that rounded out the evening’s program, the singers did not take more advantage of this. The male singers in particular were more intent on performing out (as singers might with the more typical piano accompaniment) instead of “nestling in” and breathing and listening, indeed “making conversation” with the lute. They broke the spell of the intimate style.
The second disappointment was more complicated and quite frankly sustained. Artistic Director Brown had invited Julia Bengsston as both Choreographer and Stage Director. It was a generous and thoughtful invitation to bring in and cultivate the next generation of opera-makers. It largely did not work.
The space did not help. Baroque dance is primarily based on patterned footwork and modest if graceful arm and hand gestures. The choreography was on the same floor level as the audience, so most of the movements were lost beyond the second row. A comic divertissement by talented dancer Matthew Ting involved a floppy floor dog on a leash, but few could see the dog or follow the comedy.
Nineteenth century dancer, choreographer, and teacher Enrico Cecchetti reached back to early court forms of dance to develop a signature “continental” balletic style that emphasize anatomical proportion, soft rounded ports de bras, and agile footwork that can support the reconstruction of Baroque-style dance. While this was somewhat in evidence, there was also more of the high gravitational center and I might even say “angularity” of Bengsston’s predilection for Russian-style ballet that crept into her stagework.
Moreover, opera-as-theatre style, even for a Baroque opera, needs to have gestures filled with and fueled by dramatic intention. Bengsston has not yet developed this capacity to ask for specificity from her dancers and singers. Consequently the singers tended to fall back on generalizations, a “camp” bit here and a wide-eyed “come hither” flirtation there but all a bit muddied.
Bengsston, herself a graceful and well-trained dancer certainly, was all too often as guilty as the others of standing around in frozen poses with an artificial smile plastered on her face. So, when she suddenly had Ting swing her off the ground in decidedly un-Baroque pas de deux fashion, she had not prepared the audience for this and it felt oh-so-jarring.
The opera was offered as a mise en espace (semi-staged) production, but I’d like to suggest without elaborate sets, lights, and period costumes, the emphasis could and should be on the emotional truth of performance, even or maybe even especially in such an exquisite “high” style. This opera, so dependent on and full of ballet, begged to integrate the movement and staging further.
Venus and Adonis had one performance in Washington DC on Nov 21.
The production performs Nov 22nd at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street, New York, NY 10029. https://operalafayette.org/current-season#venusDetails and Tickets
Venus and Adonis. Composed by John Blow. Libretto by Anne Kingsmill Finch. Conducted by Ryan Brown. Musical Direction by Thomas Dunford. Stage Direction and Choreography by Julia Bengsston. Costumes by Anna Kjelsdotter. With Lea Desandre, Douglas Williams, Sarah Shafer, Véronique Filloux, Daniel Moody, Patrick Kilbride, Jonathan Woody, and dancers Matthew Ting and Julia Bengsston. Plus instrumentalists Loretta O’Sullivan, Violaine Cochard, Ryan Brown, Jacob Ashworth, Kyle Miller, Anthony Manzo, Margaret Owens, Nina Stern, and Thomas Dunford. Produced by The Opera Lafayette in collaboration with the Corcoran School of Art and Design. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.