Venus and Adonis -- The earliest opera still being performed is Monteverdi’s "Orfeo" (1607); but it was called a "drama with music" and the term "opera" was not used for many years to come. A new production of John Blow’s "Venus and Adonis" is now on a French CLC DVD, and the question of terminology arises again.
When first performed before Charles II in 1683, it was called a "masque," a form of musical entertainment in which song and ballet were featured in more or less equal proportion. So calling this work an opera is up for dispute. Nevertheless, much attempt has been made on this disc to reproduce what might have been seen when the work first done before the royal audience.
John Blow was the teacher of Henry Purcell, whose fame far eclipses that of his master. The score, however, to "Venus and Adonis" is thoroughly enjoyable and makes easy listening and viewing. Charles’ 10-year old daughter took the part of Cupid, and this gave the present producers the idea to cast that role with a boy (Gregoire Augustin) and his chorus of cherubs with even younger lads.
Venus is played by a tall and graceful Celine Scheen with a youthful Marc Mauillon as Adonis. The large chorus includes soloists with a few solo lines each and the ballet blends in nicely for the most part.
The plot is simple enough to tell in one sentence. Although Venus tries unsuccessfully to keep Adonis from hunting, he does so, is fatally wounded, and dies in her arms. So what did you expect in a 60-minute masque?
But there is a major problem. There are no English subtitles (just French) and I had to find and print out the libretto from a website. Yes, the text is sung in English; but the singers have such heavy French accents (the Venus is less at fault here) that it is quite difficult to understand the words. Was no one in charge of enunciation?
Another problem is that there are two versions that survived the centuries, and a consistent score must be reconstructed for any production. And so musical director Bertrand Cuiller had many choices to make for his soloists, the chorus and orchestra of Les Musiciens du Paradis and the dancers. I was most impressed by how well things turned out, although I found the ballet a bit pedestrian.
There is a 16-minute bonus about the rehearsals, especially those for the boys, and another which is a masque-like performance of Blow’s "Ode a Sainte Cecile."
Lovers of the Baroque will certainly want this set, as will any college music department that teaches the history of opera.
Light and Color -- Another entry in the "1000 Masterworks" series on the Arthaus DVD label examines the role of "Light and Color" in five abstract works of art. I remind my readers that each disc in this series deals with five paintings that exemplify a special age or art form. (Other sets are devoted to single artists.) Each painting is discussed in 9.5 minutes, which I find quite satisfactory.
The five artists and the featured work of each on "Light and Color" are as follows: Sonia Delaunay, "Electric Prisms" (1914); Morris Louis, "Beta Kappa" (1962); Frantisek Kupka, "Amorpha" (1912); Johannes Itten, "The Meeting" (1916); and Ernst Wilhelm Nay, "Grey Passage" (1960).
Although a good deal of "modern" art is a ready target for humor, I can see where most of the better artists are coming from -- a search for new ways to look at concepts rather than objects. But when I am told that Morris Louis turned out well over 100 "works" that consisted of wet paint flowing down the canvas as he (supposedly) controlled the flow in various ways, I begin to doubt if he is to be taken all that seriously.
Even more risible is his finally arriving at a painting in which perfectly straight strips are painted down the middle of the canvas and calling that the culmination of all his experimentation.
But putting all this aside and sidestepping the usual flat and measured narration found in this series, I still can recommend it along with all the sets in this series that have been released in the past, many of which I have already reviewed.
Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.