Beauty, Love and Death

Reviewer's rating

Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) is a treasure trove of gems from a musical age that should be better known. Though a lot of early opera is nowadays available on CD, there should be more performances of works by Monteverdi and Blow …. and by Cavalli and Pergolesi and so many others. All credit then to BREMF for bringing us two stunning productions of rare masterpieces from the seventeenth century. Though the pieces are quite different in style, Deborah Roberts, the director of the festival, and stage director Thomas Guthrie have cleverly brought them together in an imaginary school – which appears to be for the purpose of instructing young people in the arts of love but I could be wrong! Given the presence of Venus, Cupid, and Pluto in both pieces, Roberts and Guthrie have found an ingenious and amusing way to unite the stories and to say something not too serious about the joys and pains of love.

The two pieces are Il Ballo delle Ingrate (The Ballet of the Ungrateful Ladies) by Monteverdi and Venus and Adonis by Blow. Neither are operas in the forms that became established by the middle of the eighteenth century but they are both from the tradition of court entertainments that was such an important strand in the early development of opera. The first piece may be described as a ballet with songs, originated in Mantua in 1608 and is a tongue-in-cheek exhortation to the ladies of that city to be more ‘welcoming’ to the lovesick young men who court them. Cupid complains to his mother Venus that his arrows no longer work. She sends him to Pluto for help and the god of the underworld duly produces a group of dead ladies who now regret that they had not been more compliant when alive. The second piece is a masque by Blow, a teacher of Henry Purcell, and is from the court of Charles II in 1683. It re-tells the legend of Venus and Adonis whose love affair is thwarted by her prevarication and his love of hunting.

The singing is quite splendid. Lodge-Campbell and Horak-Hallett, who swap the roles of Venus and Cupid in the two pieces, are both young sopranos of immense talent. Both sing with a real feel for the deceptively complex flow of Monteverdi’s vocal line in Il Ballo and make the most of Blow’s music, including a short duet of melting beauty in Venus and Adonis. John Lee, who plays Pluto with plenty of swagger and wears a hat with the slogan ‘Make Hades Great Again’, has one of those rare deep bass voices that can be heard across an auditorium even in his lowest register. No room to do justice to all the high points of a wonderful performance but the ‘zombie’ quartet at the end of Il Ballo was so beautiful that it did just what it should – remind us that behind all the fun there is sadness to deal with.

The musicians are superb. The incredible Monteverdi String Band, supplemented by harp, recorders, harpsichord, and theorbo, produce music of joyful sweetness and haunting sadness. And the presence of a modern drum-kit in the middle of the baroque orchestra is explained when the dance sections in both pieces get a modern makeover from the young people of Streetfunk, a local dance school. They give the school for lovers a touch of St Trinian’s, tormenting the ingrate, giving Venus the star treatment, and bringing a whole new vigour and liveliness to the show. It’s occasionally all a bit chaotic – too many paper aeroplanes – but it fits the concept of the show brilliantly. The whole thing is a triumph and a joy – whether you are a lover of baroque opera or a theatregoer who loves great music and dance. More, please.