J.C. Pepusch, Venus and Adonis, UQ Art Museum

VenusAdonis640x48026 November 2013

What a pleasure to hear for the first time in Brisbane last month the music of a popular early 18th-century English opera (or ‘masque’ to give it its contemporary name). Pepusch’s settings of Colley Cibber’s words gave them added wit and charm, exactly as Cibber had hoped – ‘An Attempt to give the Town a little good Musick in a Language they understand’, even though the musical idiom was that of the reigning Italian opera.

As an audience member at the performance at the UQ Art Museum I was entranced  – not by any illusion of dramatic realism in characters or sets, but simply by the pure delight of hearing a well-known story (from Ovid, not Shakespeare) deliciously and pacily told by the three expert singers and their wonderful ad hoc period orchestra. Such entertainments as afterpieces to the spoken theatre performed at Drury Lane or Lincoln’s Inn Fields must have opened up a world of pleasure to the audience – at just over an hour, such a change from the full-length evenings of serious (and incomprehensible) Italian opera.

As well as the witty musical settings of the libretto, I noticed that much of the music was in triple time, which automatically imparts a dance-like feeling to the aural experience: it cannot help but raise the spirits. The classical subject-matter of Venus’ hapless attempt to seduce the handsome (though naïve) hunter Adonis is always going to operate with the standard sit-com jokes concerning her frustration and his uninterest in anything but sport – in his case, hunting. It is all the more amusing that the character is sung by a soprano en travesti – there was no campiness about Vivien Hamilton’s very accomplished performance, but the evident artificiality of the character kept the audience comfortably enjoying the performance rather than being engaged by more intense emotions. The fact that (according to the inexorable plot) Adonis dies, gored by a boar organised by the jealous Mars, is productive only of gentle pathos in the music.

Venus (superbly sung and embodied by Lotte Betts-Dean) is the main character, with the majority of the virtuosic music – as a goddess enamoured of a mortal she can be seductive, pleading, uncomprehending, angry. Her two biggest pieces, ‘Chirping warblers, tune your voices’ (as an aid to seduction) and the violent invocation to storm and tempest after Adonis’ death, were superbly contrasted examples of the astonishing variety of her music. Mars (Stephen Grant) though limited emotionally to jealousy and anger, sang superbly, but he was not required to be anything other than the standard fuming cuckold of comedy.

Jane Davidson directed the three singers in appropriate movement and gesture to suit the music and the dramatic situation. Although she did not claim to be recreating original practices, for the modern audience she did something more valuable – she found the physical style that expressed without pedantry the essential charm and performative delight of this pioneering piece of English musical comedy.

Penny Gay, University of Sydney