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John Blow Venus and Adonis

and Ayres from Amphion Anglicus
De Visée Chaconne for 2 theorboes
Lambert Ayres from Livre d’Airs de Cour

The Original Royal Opera/Theatre of the Ayre
Elizabeth Kenny director, theorbo, guitar

Sophie Daneman soprano (Venus)
Elin Manahan Thomas soprano (Cupid)
Roderick Williams baritone (Adonis)
Rachel Podger violin
Clare Salaman violin
Galina Zinchenko viola
Pamela Thorby recorder
Catherine Latham recorder
Merlin Harrison recorder
Alison McGillivray viol, bass violin
David Miller theorbo, guitar
James Johnstone harpsichord

Wigmore Hall 3 May 2010

This important concert, being recorded for Wigmore Hall Live, celebrated John Blow's Venus & Adonis (c.1683) in its proper place as the earliest surviving English opera [New Grove].

Elizabeth Kenny's meticulously prepared semi-staged production (drawing on some of the most prestigious names in British Early Music) raised it to a level fully comparable with the far more famous Dido and Aeneas of Purcell, as had been urged by Philip Thorby at the first John Blow concert I'd ever attended*. Tonight's was far better organised than Early Opera Company's presentation, without texts in their programme.

Both stories are slight, but giving scope to express deep emotions, and neither opera is full length. Both involve moving laments for brief ill-fated loves. Venus persuades Adonis not to forgo the pleasure of the hunt, and he returns fatally injured.

All three main singers were excellent (Roderick Williams rescued from his Goodison Quartet ah-ah vocalise, as stipulated in the commissions) and the supporting group of shepherds and huntsmen likewise strong, notably Frederick Long. An important part is played by Cupid, attended in this production by a group of Cupids and Graces from Salisbury Cathedral School, charmingly choreographed.

The supporting items were enjoyable, the French composer Michel Lambert new to me. Most of the instrumental soloists in the baroque band had significant opportunities, Alison McGillivray's bass violin eye and ear catching, as were the plucked strings taking to guitar as well as the more usual theorbos.

The balance was fine in the hall, leaving one to wonder why a dozen microphones were needed for the recording, which should become a benchmark collectors item.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Lucy Crowe made a big effect in the strikingly original lament of Venus but, although Thorby's Trinity Colege of Music student singers were not in that class, his performance in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel had a frisson absent from the Wigmore Hall. Both Purcell's and Blow's operas are short enough for them to be presented together as a not overlong-concert, and that (with at least a little semi-staging) is a project worth considering?

The Blow opera plumbed greater depths at Wigmore Hall , but it was a pity that the glossy programme lacked texts - one's attention was unduly diverted from the music by trying to make sense of what was being sung, especially by the two sopranos; you catch a few words on the way, and have to try to guess what the complete sentences might be...