Skip to content

Venus and Adonis

by on 16 April 2023

Small Pleasures

Venus and Adonis

by John Blow, libretto by Anne Kingsmill

Ode on St Cecilia’s Day

by Henry Purcell, text by Nicholas Brady derived from poems by John Dryden and others

Richmond Opera at the Normansfield Theatre, Teddington until 16th April

Review by Patrick Shorrock

The Normansfield Theatre, with its gold leaf and beautiful floral paintings at the side of the stage, is an astonishing Victorian jewel to find in suburban West London.  Inside, it’s a cross between Wigmore Hall and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (although the seats are much more comfortable than the latter!)  It was the house of Dr John Langdon Down (after whom Down’s syndrome is named) who made it a place is where people with learning disabilities could be cared for and educated, which it still is. 

It was an ideal setting for these two small English pieces from late 17th century, both overshadowed by the mighty Handel who followed them and produced works of greater substance.  That said, they are not without their charms. 

Venus and Adonis is considered to be the first opera in English.  It had to start somewhere after all.  A masque written to celebrate Charles II’s relationship with his mistresses, it has uneasy lurches in tone from the comic, when Cupid teaches little cupids how to spell M-E-R-C-E-N-A-R-Y,  to full-on tragic as Adonis, gored by a wild boar, dies in the arms of Venus.  This inconsistency of tone is not dissimilar to its immediate successor, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, although, unlike that work, there are no proper arias or duets.  It moves seamlessly from recitative to arioso more in the way of Rameau – there are also dance interludes – which seems to be something that critics and opera historians like rather more than audiences do.  It is not without musical pleasure but of a rather low calorie kind. 

Much of the enjoyment derives from the auditorium and the performance.  It was a real pleasure to see Victorian scenery in use.  Very sensibly, Richmond Opera did not go in Jacobean or Baroque designs or costumes, but went for a rather later approach more contemporary with the theatre, with some of the dancers even looking like refugees from Giselle.  Rather impressively the amateur orchestra under musical director Lindsay Bramley played period instruments, where there is nowhere to hide if you get a note wrong.  Even if they didn’t quite have the crispness of the best early instrument bands, they were still very good.  Tony Moss’s stage direction is generally fluent and effective, although the chaise longue gets moved around an awful lot and Adonis has to spend rather a lot of time before the show starts having his portrait painted.   Oliver Bowes as Adonis has an effective well used baritone and Erin Holmes is an attractive Cupid, but Claire Doran is slightly stiff as Venus. 

After the interval, we have a lively rendition of Purcell’s Ode on St Cecilia’s Day.  The increased range of instruments and greater rhythmic incisiveness shows what is missing in the Blow.  The eight solo voices are of variable quality and Oliver Bowes (again), Hugh Benson, Amelie Saintonge and Carolyn Burnley are particularly good, although not many of the words come across.  It feels like a collection of delightful morsels rather than a completely satisfying meal, but then Purcell is something of a miniaturist at the best of times. 

Patrick Shorrock, April 2023

Photography by Jon Lo

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: