The theme of love has saturated every form of art for centuries. And while most artists try to find a way to convey the same idea in a manner which is fresh and engaging, it is also interesting to look again at contexts which have not been experienced for many generations. In this particular instance, the highly respected performers of the Cape Consort staged the early Baroque opera, Venus and Adonis, by the English composer John Blow (1649 – 1708).
In the staging of this, one of the earliest surviving English operas, six solo voices joined an ensemble of period instruments including harpsichord, viola da gamba, baroque violins and recorders. The Cape Consort’s challenge is to recreate the performance practices of the early 1690s, allowing the listener to be led into the past to a sound which is over 300 years old.
In a packed Fugard Studio, the audience’s enthusiasm was palpable. Above the stage was an overhead projection screen to display the words of the libretto as each vocalist performed. On the stage were six chairs and to the right, the ensemble sat huddled around the harpsichord, busily tuning and awaiting the signal from their musical director, Erik Dippenaar. It must be mentioned that standard tuning does not apply with these particular instruments because musical performance practices had a lower tuning ratio than today. This also means that the instruments take a little while to settle in tune and can be a tad off-putting to the inexperienced listener.
The ensemble began with an overture which immediately set the atmosphere for what was to follow. By allowing one’s ear to get accustomed to the tuning, one soon realises the expressive beauty in the slight variations in pitch and recognises the all-significant earthy elements in the music. The ensemble remained well-balanced and produced a particularly warm sound.
The prologue followed, with Lente Louw as Cupid giving a wonderfully mischievous, provocative and skilled performance; her character was solidly felt without being overbearing. Cupid addressed a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses – Nick de Jager, Willem Bester and Tessa Roos – who achieved a wonderfully pleasing sound with balance and contrast. The skill of each was clear and effortless, while the group shared an experienced rapport. The subject matter – written in the liberal court King Charles II – is often very racy, almost satirical. Its humour was nicely reflected in the facial expressions of each vocalist as the libretto progressed.
Venus (Antoinette Blyth), and Adonis (Charles Ainslie) enter in Act 1 where they are discovered courting and engaging each other in an affectionate recitative, Venus paired with the recorders and Adonis with the more manly harpsichord. Adonis then goes out to hunt down a wild boar which has been wreaking havoc in the community. As well as real on-stage chemistry between the vocalists Blyth and Ainslie, each gave a brilliant technical performance, even improvising some of the vocal parts as dictated by the style of that period of music.
Act 2 had an interesting addition with the introduction of a small chorus of child singers who played the parts of the Graces and little cupids. They joined Cupid and Venus as Venus teaches Cupid more about the art of love.
The story takes a sombre turn as Adonis is mortally wounded by the wild boar. He and Venus share a passionate exchange before Adonis dies. Venus mourns her loss with a funeral march joined by the chorus, in which the contrapuntal voices and the dark tone of the harpsichord create a melancholic atmosphere marking the end of the opera.
With the story concluded, the audience showed its appreciation with a thunderous applause. The Cape Consort gave a well crafted performance with enthusiasm and total commitment to the style of the music. This small group has managed to strike the perfect balance of staying true to the original performance style while making it perfectly accessible to a modern audience. The Cape Consort allows its listeners, just for a moment, to be transported to another period in time, to experience history and a world quite different from our own.
Gareth Harvey is a performing saxophonist and music solutions manager at Octave Leap Music.
The Cape Consort’s Venus and Adonis runs 12 & 19 October 2014 at the Fugard Theatre Studio.