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Venus and Adonis - Background information


What is Venus and Adonis?
Venus and Adonis is a short opera by John Blow.  John Blow wrote it for a private performance at the court of King Charles II, probably sometime during 1683.  It is the earliest English opera for which we still have the text and the music.  John Blow must have been influenced by contemporary operas from France, as Venus and Adonis follows a similar structure.   It is particularly important because it inspired Henry Purcell to compose his much more famous opera, Dido and Aeneas.

An early manuscript copy of Venus and Adonis does not call it an opera, but a 'masque'.  This is probably because masques were a better-known genre.  While English opera was a relatively new thing, there was a long tradition of performing masques at the royal court, stretching back to the time of Henry VIII.  A masque was a spoken play, often with elaborate staging, which contained musical 'interludes', made up of solo songs, choruses and dances.  Although professional actors and musicians would perform the masque, it was traditional for members of the court also to take part in the singing and dancing.  This also happened in Venus and AdonisVenus and Adonis is, really, part masque and part opera.  The table shows the elements that Venus and Adonis shares with each genre.

Elements in a traditional masque
Elements in a seventeenth-century opera
Venus and Adonis
Spoken play
   
Participation by court members
   Yes
Elaborate scenery
   
A plot based on classical mythology
A plot based on classical mythology
Yes
Solo songs
Solo songs
Yes
Choruses
Choruses
Yes
Dances
Dances
Yes

Sung all through (no speaking)
Yes

A prologue and three acts
Yes













What's the story?
The plot of Venus and Adonis comes from classical mythology.  It is based on one of the stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses, although the version in John Blow's opera is a little different from Ovid's.

Venus, the Roman goddess of love, has fallen in love with Adonis, who is a mortal.  While they are together, declaring their love for one another, a band of hunters arrives and tells of a wild boar that is terrorising the neighbourhood.  The hunters invite Adonis to go with them to hunt the boar.  At first, Adonis refuses; he would rather stay with Venus, but Venus persuades him to join the hunt. 

While Adonis is out hunting, Venus and her son Cupid make conversation and play games with a group of 'Little Cupids'.  Then Venus is dressed in great finery by the Graces, ready for Adonis' return.  When he does return, however, it is with a fatal wound inflicted by the boar.  After singing a mournful duet, Adonis dies in Venus' arms. Venus, who is immortal, vows to weep for evermore.

What are the themes?

The text, or 'libretto', of Venus and Adonis was written by Anne Kingsmill, one of the maids of honour of Maria of Modena (wife of the Duke of York, who would later become King James II).  This explains why the story is presented from a female perspective.  The cast, for example, is made up largely of women and, rather than follow Adonis out hunting during Act II, the action remains 'indoors' and portrays the minutiae of Venus' toilette. 

As is typical of traditional court masques, the setting of the classical tale bears a close resemblance to that of the English court.  Venus and Adonis take the role of the King and Queen, while the other characters are their courtiers.  Anne Kingsmill would have drawn on her knowledge of court life, and her libretto gently pokes fun at the behaviour of the courtiers, particularly making reference to their infidelity in relationships.

What is the music like?

There is no speaking in Venus and Adonis; all the action and dialogue is presented through vocal music.  There are three types of vocal music in the opera:
  1. Recitative: This is like 'sung speech' and is used for dialogue and to carry the action along.  In Venus and Adonis the recitative sometimes includes quite ornate passages of several notes sung to one syllable (known as melisma).
  2. Solo songs or arias: Arias do not usually tell the story.  Instead, the character singing the aria expresses a feeling or opinion about what is happening.  These songs are more tuneful than the recitative and have a more regular rhythmic pattern.
  3. Choruses:  Several singers perform the choruses, often singing in parts.  In Venus and Adonis the choruses often follow a solo song and repeat its words and melody.
There are also several instrumental pieces.  These include an overture, to begin the opera, and tunes at the end of the Prologue and Acts I and II.  Other instrumental movements are specifically for dancing.  Members of the cast (especially the chorus) would have performed carefully choreographed dances to these pieces.

You can download a reasonably priced recording of the opera here (this is an external link, outside the control of NCEM).

Who would have performed the opera?
Although we do not know when the first performance took place, we do know the names of some of the performers.  The King and Queen, and other members of the royal family employed a number of musicians to perform for them, and many of these musicians would have been involved in the performance.  The instrumentalists would have been the King's own band of stringed instruments, known as the 'Twenty-Four Violins'. Adonis and the huntsmen would have been played by gentlemen singers of the Chapel Royal (the choir who usually performed music for the King during religious services).  We also know that Mary (Moll) Davies, a former actress who had become one of the King's mistresses played the part of Venus, carrying on the tradition of members of the royal household performing in masques.  The other female parts were probably taken by actresses from the London theatres.

There were also children involved in the performance.  Venus' son, Cupid, who has quite a challenging part, was played by Mary Tudor.  Mary was the illegitimate daughter of Charles II; her mother was Moll Davies.  She must have been a talented musician, as she was probably only ten years old when she sang the role.  The Little Cupids were also children.  They would have been children of the Chapel Royal, boy trebles who sang with the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal during religious services.  They were often required also to act in plays and to perform secular music for the King and Queen.  The children of the Chapel Royal lived together and were educated together.  The composer of Venus and Adonis, John Blow, was responsible for their education.  The Little Cupids' spelling lesson in Act II, therefore, is a comical parody of the lessons the boys would have had together in real life.

Download this page as a PDF file: BG1 Background information.pdf