Venus & Adonis and Dido & Aeneas

John Blow and Henry Purcell
Confidencen Festival, Sweden

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Ida Ränzlöv (Venus) Credit: Marin Hellström
Ida Ränzlöv (Venus) and Bernt Ola Volungholen (Adonis) Credit: Marin Hellström
Rupert Enticknap (Cupid in Venus & Adonis) Credit: Marin Hellström
Ida Ränzlöv (Dido) and Christina Larsson Malmberg (Belinda) Credit: Marin Hellström
Rupert Enticknap (Sorceress in Dido & Aeneas) Credit: Marin Hellström

These beautifully staged performances, very much in the style in which they were first seen, present an ideal opportunity to compare the work of John Blow with that of the pupil who would succeed and surpass him, Henry Purcell.

Blow’s 45-minute work, the first surviving opera in English, directly inspired Purcell’s 50-minute masterpiece in its musical style, format, and classical plot. There is even a reference by Aeneas in the latter to having killed the boar that caused the death of Adonis.

But although composed only five years apart, the two pieces are profoundly different in mood, corresponding to the radically changed politics of the time.

Blow’s composition was presented "for the Entertainment of the King," with the role of Venus taken by Charles II’s former mistress Mary Davies and that of Cupid by their natural daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, who urges the audience to abandon restraint and "to do all that comes naturally... what your thoughts desire." And in a bold endorsement of kingly morals, that equated constancy with ugliness, Cupid declares: "At court I found honest and true, only a couple of aged lords or two."

But by the time of Dido’s première in 1689, the Stuarts were gone, excess replaced by the Dutch rectitude of William and Mary, who nevertheless still faced the prospect of the deposed James II raising an army in Ireland. "When monarchs unite, how happy their state," intones the chorus. From gay abandon, there is a sense of unease.

Blow’s music moves smoothly from the formal style of the court to the more intimate as Venus mourns the death of Adonis. It is never less than elegant, but unlike Purcell's passionate lament for Dido, her elegy never strays beyond the limits of dignified restraint, and in the overall context of the opera has less impact than the carefree play of young cupids that dominate the middle act.

A fine cast appears in both works, led by the Ida Ränzlöv in both female title roles. She sounds ravishing, crystal-clear throughout the range with warm undertones, and looks lovely yet shell-shocked at the loss of Aeneas. I did feel however that this fine dramatic mezzo, recently heard in Wagner and late Verdi, might in that passage have dialled down on the vibrato to match the baroque instrumentation.

Director William Relton presents both operas in 17th century dress, Bernt Ola Volungholen appearing as a long-haired, rustic Adonis in peasant garb, the bejewelled Venus’s bit of rough, like Lady C’s Mellors, or as this is being performed in Sweden, like Miss Julie’s valet. There is nothing rough about the voice, however, and he sounded particularly impressive as Purcell's Aeneas.

The contrast between the two pieces is particularly marked in the characters played by counter-tenor Rupert Enticknap, first as a cheeky chubby chappie Cupid, then as a malevolent sorceress, threatening to bring disaster upon the house of Dido (cf James v William).

Christer Nilsson’s sets of sliding, painted flats within a pretty proscenium arch reproduce the sort of setting the first audiences would have seen, Dido’s realm looking a thousand miles removed from Carthage, with courtiers arrayed by costume designer Anna Kjellsdotter as if attending a ball at St. James.

Purcell was the more gifted melodist, but it is a pleasure to hear the music of his mentor beforehand. Conductor Olof Boman sensitively directs both works from the side of the orchestra pit allowing recorded close-ups of the performers in the lovely Confidencen, the oldest Rococo theatre in Sweden, an ideal setting for these period pieces.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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