They’re blowing 330 years of dust right off John Blow’s English baroque opera Venus and Adonis at Cornish College of the Arts. One of the earliest surviving operas in English gets an entirely new life in a show that will “detonate and obliterate all your preconceptions”—according to the venturesome team assembled for this one-hour production.
Cornish Opera Theater’s production of Venus and Adonis brings to the table an astonishing constellation of talent. Music director Stephen Stubbs has four decades of international experience in presenting early opera (and three Grammy nominations for his recordings). Stage director James Darrah, barely out of UCLA and already boasting credits from Chicago to Croatia, is the face that should pop up when you type “adventurous” into your browser’s search field.
“A lot of people have a bad assumption about ‘baroque opera’,” James says. “They think it’s going to be sterilized and pristine, but it’s violent, bloody, and lustful. This show is going to pull against the audience’s expectations.”
If you’re thinking horned helmets and hefty sopranos when you read the term “opera,” think again. The cast will be composed of young, dramatically compelling singing actors drawn from Cornish’s undergraduate opera and Artist Diploma in Early Music programs. There won’t be any “stand there and sing” moments; instead, the action will be choreographed so it’s a continuous flow of music, dance, and highly fluid movement. The audience will also be a part of what’s happening onstage. In fact, Stubbs says that the first few rows of the audience in PONCHO Concert Hall will actually be “in the middle of the music.” And the hall itself will be the set: Seattle visual artist Susie J. Lee, whose work is exhibited nationally, will use the back wall of the stage as a surface for imaginative projections.
Venus and Adonis, composed for the dissolute court of England’s Charles II, tells the mythical story of the goddess Venus, who falls in love with Adonis—who doesn’t heed Venus’ warnings and is fatally gored by a boar during a hunt. It’s one of those rare operas of the period that doesn’t have a happy ending with a jolly song as the finale. At the opera’s premiere, the role of Venus was played by one of Charles’ favorite mistresses, Moll Davies, and the Cupids by royal “love children” (including Moll’s and Charles’ daughter Lady Mary).
Cornish Opera Theater’s production brings together a pool of early-music experts who will contribute their remarkable expertise to every aspect of Venus and Adonis. In charge of the dance elements will be choreographer Anna Mansbridge, an internationally known exponent of early dance, who will help construct what Darrah calls “a gestural vocabulary for the cast.” Connie Yun, whose work is familiar to Seattle Opera audiences, designs the lighting. Nancy Zylstra, whose wide teaching experience is acclaimed from Oberlin to Amsterdam, coaches the singers, and Stubbs has assembled a first-rate ensemble of professional musicians and student instrumentalists on harpsichord, lute, baroque harp, viola da gamba, and baroque violin. The band should be almost as fun to watch as the action on the stage, which it augments and underlines through music.
“The audience will be thinking about human interactions and human intimacy,” promises Darrah. “Not about which period the opera is in. This production is going to be a highly fluid and timeless piece.” More “nightmare vision” than “prissy pastorale,” it promises to be a highly engaging show.
Check out the Cornish Opera Theater production of Venus and Adonis November 8 through 11 at PONCHO Concert Hall, Cornish College of the Arts, 710 E. Roy Street, Seattle.
Melinda Bargreen, a Washington State writer, critic, composer and teacher, was previously classical music critic for The Seattle Times for 31 years.
Performances of Venus and Adonis begin on Thursday, November 8 at 8 pm with subsequent performances Friday, November 9 at 8 pm, Saturday, November 10 at 8 pm, and Sunday, November 11th at 2 pm. Tickets available online: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.