John Blow: Venus and Adonis

Transition_Opera

Wilton's Music Hall, 22 February 2009 4 stars

Andrew Radley The Transition_Opera company, who have only been active for just under two years, are becoming well-known for their innovative and thoroughly modern approach to concert performances, especially opera. Each of their productions involves the integration of live video and film into the work of the performers on stage. Having not seen the group perform before, I was slightly apprehensive as to the success of such a venture, but intrigued nonetheless. Thankfully the reward was high, and Transition_Opera's interpretation of John Blow's Venus and Adonis was original, thoroughly contemporary and captivating throughout.

Atmospherically, the performance was aided straightaway by the wonderful surroundings of Wilton's Music Hall; the largest and oldest surviving music hall in the world, this utterly charming venue is one of the best-kept secrets of the East End. The set design was luxurious and striking, with a two-tier stage of black and white squared flooring, a dark red curtained backdrop and screens in varying sizes, suspended over the stage and propped up near each of the wings.

The first half of the concert presented a selection of secular songs by Henry Purcell, chosen to reflect every aspect and effect of love. A programme with such brief but numerous songs could have presented a great challenge in both maintaining the attention of the audience and creating a sense of cohesion. However, Netia Jones (Transition's Director, Designer and Video Designer) created a most innovative and successful narrative concept to tie these pieces together. The stage appeared as a chic city bar, with all the singers dressed in coordinating suits. It quickly became apparent that we were witnessing a speed-dating evening: the soloist of each song sat centre stage facing their two-minute date (and the audience) whilst the date's facial expressions were displayed on several of the screens above and around the stage. As each song finished, all stood up and swapped tables and partners. The live filming of each date's reactions was an incredibly effective set-up, which strangely wasn't a distraction from each singer's performance but an enhancement of it.

The one major complaint I would have – sadly the case for the whole evening – was that nearly all of the words were lost in the acoustic (at least this was certainly the case fort those of us sat up in the balcony). With none of the texts included in the programme, it meant that much of the magic of each song was a little lost – thank goodness we were able to see the reactions of each singer's date, as this became one of the only indicators of the songs' lyrics. This unfortunately significant drawback aside, there were some very fine performances, most notably Andrew Davies' ‘Bacchus is a Pow'r Divine', Dawid Kimberg's ‘ O Turn Not Those Fine Eyes' and the concluding ‘Since the Pox or the Plague', sung by Kevin Kyle and Andrew Davies, as they are both left in the bar alone, drunk and are rousingly optimistic, despite their lack of success in love.

This short first half was followed by the main event of Venus and Adonis by John Blow – Purcell's friend and pupil. The original performance in 1682 would have been an interesting spectacle I'm sure: having been written for private performance at the court of King Charles II, it starred both his mistress Moll Davis as Venus, and their illegitimate daughter Mary as Cupid. The work is also believed to have heavily influenced Purcell during his composition of Dido and Aeneas.

Once again, a strong, modern interpretation has been imposed, which – as it is maintained with thoughtful consistency throughout, works incredibly well. During the Overture, which was played with vigour and precision at this performance, a quirky Cupid (Andrew Radley) is tapping away on his laptop on internet dating sites – made clear by the screen images above. Gradually more suit-wearing people arrive at the several small tables with computer keyboards on top and begin to type away. The scene is set: we are in a busy internet café and Cupid it seems is the internet site monitor-cum-café owner. Andrew Radley's Cupid was lively and enjoyable throughout, with a strong vocal performance that carried well – the most successful in the battle between diction and the echoing acoustics.

Venus (Katherine Manley) arrived on stage in a tight red pencil skirt and hot pink high heels, and Adonis (Dawid Kimberg) in a fine pair of riding boots. The hunting theme was fully embraced as equine images appeared on all split screens and the fellow huntsmen in similar attire appeared, leaping and bounding onto the stage from the back of the audience. Pleasantly comical and jovial, their performance was still vocally impressive, with clear and confident ensemble singing. The huntsmen's synchronised dance sketch, choreographed by Meg Saunders, worked well to reflect the film snippets of horse riding on the surrounding screens – a really captivating highlight of the performance.

An amusing later scene presented all the cast as trainee cupids, dressed to match Radley's Cupid, and typing away, their words (such as ‘mercenary' and ‘jealous') appearing onscreen on top of scrolling pages of internet dating sites. This scene was a perfect example of the company's success in combining well thought-out costume design, innovative interpretation of the work and an emphasis on maximising visual stimulation with the integration of video and film.

The most notable performance of the evening was surely from Katherine Manley as Venus. She offered a powerful, confident and alluring portrayal of the role. The pinnacle of her performance was her lamenting aria sung over the dying Adonis. Truly touching, both Manley's acting and singing at this point created a tangible cloak of tragedy over the auditorium, which was a real achievement after the jovial, light-hearted atmosphere established in many of the opera's previous scenes. At the very moment of Adonis' death, Manley's musical sighs were given with great passion and despair; her vocal performance remained impeccable throughout her outpouring of grief – truly fantastic. With the chorus strewn over the stage, a beautifully gentle ensemble sound supported by a cohesive continuo ended the tragic scene with a warm, melancholic atmosphere.

A surprisingly successful performance, Transistion_Opera seem to have struck on an incredibly innovative concept for reinterpreting established repertoire. The particular success of this evening's concert was the fact that each element of the production was thoughtfully and carefully developed – the set and costume design, the video and film input, the overall modern concept and interpretation of the music, and of course the quality of the musical performance itself. The combination of all these factors resulted in a wonderfully entertaining and original experience. If only the acoustic issue hadn't caused such problems, this would have been a very fine performance indeed.

By Claudine Nightingale

Photo: Andrew Radley (countertenor)

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