Blow: Venus & Adonis / Scheen, Mauillon, Cuiller
BLOW Venus and Adonis & • Bertrand Cuiller, cond; Céline Scheen ( Venus ); Marc Mauillon ( Adonis ); Grégoire Augustin ( Cupid ); Les Musiciens du Paradis, Maîtrise de Caen • ALPHA 703 (DVD: 86:29) Live: Caen 2013
& Ode à Sainte-Cecile
This production mixes the authentic with the experimental, generally with excellent results. Authenticity can be found in the six footlight boxes at the front of the stage, filled with a couple of dozen lit candles each; but the stage itself is occupied by movable, fake deciduous trees, and wooden pillar sections ranging from two to four feet high. On top of the latter, and scattered across the floor, are a mix of glass boxes filled with yet more lit candles, and other boxes with solid and wireframe geometric objects. When performed against a black backdrop, with period costumes almost entirely in black as well, and the young trebles of the Caen Choir School playing with the geometric toys, the effect is of a time out of time: an intimate, arboreal sanctuary for Venus and the immortal spirits that are her followers, where nothing changes. Except for mortal Adonis, dressed in yellow and red.
Blow’s score, half English masque, half early opera, leaves a lot of leeway for dance. Françoise Denieau choreographs for the most part with Baroque movements and gestures that must have been rehearsed assiduously to look as natural as they do. He and stage director Louise Moaty second Blow’s ever-changing musical forms with a clever and varied use of their deliberately limited stage, where the introduction of a few carefully chosen, fresh elements—the hunting hounds that are brought through once, the pair of live doves that sit on the hands of two of the Graces, as they slowly dance—can have a correspondingly major effect.
To the performances. Marc Mauillon, whom I greatly enjoyed recently in a disc of Machaut (Eloquentia 1342), has a dry, light baritone. It is not an especially attractive voice, but he expressively and clearly enunciates the text, and phrases particularly well. Céline Scheen is a showstopper, with a finely focused tone, and a control of dynamics that allows her complete control of the line. It’s rare to hear diminuendos executed with such finesse, and without a break to the filament. Grégoire Augustin, one of the Caen Choir School trebles, looks youthful enough for the part of Cupid, but has an unfortunate tendency to let the pitch sag in the middle of phrases. There is also an instance where he looks surprised, then suddenly jumps up and races to join others beginning to dance across the other side of the stage, in a manner that suggests a forgotten cue. Nerves are likely responsible: It’s a lot of responsibility to place on a child who to judge from the all too brief accompanying documentary material has not had the solo spotlight in an opera before. Bertrand Cuiller’s conducting is expert, flexible, rhythmically based, and tightly disciplined.
Given the short length of Blow’s work, his Ode à Sainte-Cécile is also included, slightly staged with the same performers and costumes, soloists moving in and out of the line, with dancers occasionally taking part. It makes for a charming pendant to the evening.
Two issues need to be raised. One is that of pronunciation. While nearly all the performers enunciate their text well, with one exception (the very fine soprano Anne-Marie Beaudette) they adopt what someone in charge clearly believes to be a late 17th-century accent found in some part of London. Since no one has any idea, or can have any idea, what this was like, and since I have heard five separate, completely different versions thus far of an “authentic 17th-century London accent” from various groups and individuals, each claiming to know The Truth, I would suggest it might be better to let the issue lie, and use some form of modern English that is completely intelligible to audiences. The half-Cardiff, half-Edinburgh that seems to form a standard on this recording sounds even stranger when filtered through several Norman accents.
The second issue is that of camera work. The opera in general is well photographed, with good attention paid to highlighted groups, while avoiding the abuse of close-ups; and I strongly enjoyed the real candles utilized both in footlights and so many areas of the stage. But these create a washed-out effect in the performers and scenery—so be aware, the rich colors on the DVD cover are not at all representative. You’ll need to truly ramp up the saturation of your screen while dimming the brightness a bit to approach that look.
With reservations allowed for strange accents, and an uneasy, sometimes off-pitch Cupid, I strongly enjoyed this production. Louise Moaty and her colleagues are to be congratulated for finding clever ways to reinvigorate Blow’s usual and delightful work, with fine performances from nearly all the participants. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Catalog Number: Alpha703
Composer: John Blow
Conductor: Daniel Cuiller
Orchestra/Ensemble: La Maitrise de Caen, Les Musiciens du Paradis
Performer: Céline Scheen, Grégoire Augustin, Marc Mauillon
Venus and Adonis
Composer: John Blow
Ensemble: La Maitrise de Caen, Les Musiciens du Paradis
Performer: Grégoire Augustin (Soprano), Marc Mauillon (Baritone), Céline Scheen (Soprano)
Conductor: Daniel Cuiller