We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, November 23, 2019


The cast of Opera Lafayette's Venus and Adonis

It is always a highly anticipated event when Opera Lafayette comes to town and we make sure we mark it on our calendar way in advance out of fear of missing out. We are always rewarded with an evening that is satisfying from an educational standpoint as well as an artistic one. We always make time for the lectures which add to our understanding and appreciation. Last night at El Museo del Barrio, Artistic Director Ryan Brown let us in on some interesting tidbits about the John Blow opera we came to see--Venus and Adonis. 

This 1683 court masque was presented at the court of Charles II during The Restoration Period. The librettist, Ann Kingsmill Finch, was a woman of letters who played fast and loose with the myth from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Instead of Adonis abandoning Venus to go on a hunt, the Goddess of Love sends him away with verses that would do the independent woman of the 21st c. proud. "Absence kindles new desire, I would not have my lover tire".

The roles in the masque were played by courtiers themselves with the role of Venus taken by a mistress of the King, with their illegitimate child portraying Cupid! One wonders how the Court felt about the theme of the fickleness of the courtiers. Some say that the piece is symbolic, with Venus representing England and Adonis representing Charles II, whose line would die off with him due to the "taint" of Roman Catholicism.

It seems that opera took root in several places, including Great Britain. Blow's opera was the first through-composed musical drama in England and stands with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas as the two great lyrical works of 17th c. England. It has its own British flavor involving intricate contrapuntal writing.

Music Director for the evening was Thomas Dunford who excels as a lutenist. He demonstrated his archlute which, like all members of the lute family including the theorbo, derived from the North African oud. He demonstrated the use of "blue" notes and the way they contribute to harmonic tension and release. There is ample room for improvisation as there is in jazz. During the performance, his fingers fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird and sometimes the fingerwork looked like that of flamenco guitar, although the sound was completely different.

We were also introduced to the Swedish Stage Director/Choreographer/Dancer Julia Bengtsson who talked to us about dance notation. The dances at the English court were derived from French dance with improvisatory variation dependent upon the liberties taken by the musicians. During the opera we greatly enjoyed her grace and spirit; the footwork and positions of the arms were readily recognizable as forerunners to Russian ballet.

The brief three-act opera was preceded by three Dowland songs about unrequited love and some by Purcell, including our favorite "Music for a While". We enjoyed the soprano of VĂ©ronique Filloux, the countertenor of Daniel Moody, the tenor of Patrick Kilbride, and the bass-baritone of Jonathan Woody, all of whom were exceptionally delightful to the ear. 

The opera itself starred Lea Desandre as Venus; her mezzo-soprano instrument has a remarkable upper extension. The role of Adonis was performed by bass-baritone Douglas Williams who possesses a substantial instrument and a convincing stage presence.

Soprano Sarah Shafer fulfilled all the demands of the role of Cupid and won our heart with her animated performance. Her lustrous tone was put into the service of a variety of moods and colors.

Other roles were performed by Ms. Filloux, Mr. Moody, Mr. Kilbride, and Mr. Woody.

The chamber orchestra onstage comprised a pair of violins played by Maestro Ryan Brown and Jacob Ashworth (well known to us from Heartbeat Opera), as well as viola, bass, and two recorders. Continuo was provided by Mr. Dunford playing lute, Loretta O'Sullivan playing cello and Violaine Cochard playing harpsichord.

The dancing of Ms. Bengsston and Matthew Ting added a great deal of visual impact to the beautiful sounds that were, to our ears, as soothing as they were interesting. The dancers' costumes were designed by Anna Kjellsdotter.

About Ms. Finch's libretto we have little to say. Frankly, the diction of the singers left something to be desired and we spotted many audience members struggling to read the libretto in the dim theater. We don't think that projected titles would have added anything. It was just a case of the music and dancing being far more interesting than the repetitive text.

It has been exactly a year since we saw this opera produced by New Camerata Opera, a production that was given a brightly colored punk twist with outlandish costuming but no baroque dancing. This was a totally different experience and we left thinking that so much of the way one perceives a work has to do with the concept and direction. It's remarkable how this very old work can offer enough "meat" for two radically different interpretations.

© meche kroop

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