Henry Purcell’s debt to his teacher John Blow becomes very clear when one compares Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1680-1687) with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (ca. 1688). Historians posit Dido as the first opera in English, yet except for Purcell’s pungent use of chromaticism, it doesn’t advance very far beyond the earlier composer’s dramatic masque. Both works run about an hour and include ensembles, duets, overtures and dances (lost in the Purcell). Do the static recitatives in Dido make it more of an opera than Venus which moves more continuously? Otherwise, Blow’s huntsmen and nymphs and Purcell’s sailors and courtiers seem almost interchangeable. Both compact works feature asymmetrical romances and end with poignant laments.
Which is a longwinded way to say that lesser-known Venus and Adonis deserves to be better known. Cambridge Chamber Ensemble made that apparent in its very rewarding three-performance run at Cambridge Multicultural Center last weekend. Executive Director Martha Birnbaum describes its missions as “…educating a wide range of people to the beauty and emotional richness of great operatic works at reasonable prices; presenting lesser-known operatic gems that deserve to be widely heard, casting a wide net in engaging an ethnically diverse and gendered ensemble of singers, directors, and crew; and engaging both emerging artists and established performers to foster a communal musical experience for cast and audiences.” Diversity certainly made its presence know in the sizes, shapes, ages, and colors of the 30 singer, players, and dancers, but diversity of ability never entered the equation. Everythey we saw and heard made a fine impression.
Stage Director David R. Gammons made very effective use of Wait and Cutter’s lofty and florid 1889 Registry of Deeds Courtroom, casting a particularly bright light on the oh-so-very-apt frieze of putti (with a rifle-toting minuteman substituting for Cupid). He kept the singers and dancers in constant motion, placing them in the balcony, on staircases, on sidestages, and within the aisles…often all at once. Jeff Adelberg’s complex lighting plan placed his spots and floods at a variety of dramatic angles, used colors to evoke mood and spots to focus attention and establish a hierarchy in time and tone. His use of raking beams for the stair ascents and descents worked unforgettably.
The supporting players worked with costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt to add individualized ornaments to the caryatid-like qualities of draping in the women’s sleeveless dancing tops and capri pants that they all donned. Venus wore something of a classical Empire gown. Since the singers and dancers often moved together (and dancers sometimes doubled singers), their roles blurred, especially because many singers actually could move…we saw no stand and deliver really. Singers and dancers interacted with each other rather than aiming for the audience. Alissa Cardone choreographed lots of steps, gestures and tableaux (we imagined Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, Jose Limon, Twyla Tharpe, and Gypsy Rose Lee) for the enthusiastic Terpsichoreans who rarely absented themselves from the stage. In partnership with Gammons, Cardone also found appealing ways for the singers to move.
Music Director Stephanie Beatrice booked an orchestra of 2/2/2/2 strings plus 2 recorders and a harpsichord which filled the space with spirited but legato sounds that were, to my great pleasure, not infected by flippant Baroqueisms or weird tunings. She maintained balances perfectly and captured the ever-shifting moods with great sensitivity…whether for stately dance forms, romantic embraces, comic pratfalls, or tear-inducing laments. She also served as makeup artist.
We note with pleasure the recorder duets between Roy Sanson and Emily O’Brien and the harpsichord continuo from Libor Dudas. And this time, I register no complaints for the two-on-a-part strings…very refined sounding.
Over four acts the principals proceeded thus: The sprightly archer Cupid accidentally pierces his mother Venus with one of his arrows, whereupon she falls in love with the handsome youth Adonis, Venus encourages Adonis to go hunting, although he would rather stay with her. He is gored to death by a wild boar, and after lamenting his fate, is carried to Hades, leaving Venus to morn before rising to celestial spheres. The supporting cast of Shepherds, Shepherdesses, Huntsmen, Graces, Little Cupids and Dancers (when they weren’t impersonating a murderous three-horned wild boar) commented continuously in song and gesture.
Baritone Junhan Choi gave dramatic voice and presence to Adonis, commanding our attention with a mellifluous instrument. No look-at-me Narcissus, he appeared far more interested in Venus than in himself or in the audience. Delicious countertenor floridities from the gilded Cupid of countertenor Wei En Chan included a facile and appealing trill. His arrows always told. Kate Wood deployed her pure soprano with a goddess’s dignity until the dying Adonis brought ought her all-too-human despair.
CCE made a conquest of this writer. He could barely control his emotions at the end. With highly imaginative and effective use of space and forces, this small company can outperform its larger and older brethren.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer