Review: Venus and Adonis with Dido and Aeneas, Opera Lyrica ****

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Sorcerer’s spell: Opera Lyrica’s Dido and Aeneas at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden

Many opera companies profess to be ‘building a future’ for the art form, but there’s something about Opera Lyrica that makes me believe they might actually succeed.

This unassuming company works quietly behind the hype, building talent pools of young performers and getting them on stage singing. This autumn, they’re going into schools to help students perform opera. There’s no faff, complicated staging, or edgy venues. This is about the music. “It would be lovely to know that a new generation is growing up in a culture where opera is valued and promoted,” say the directors, Paola Cuffolo and Nicholas Simpson.

They’ve got connections in high places, too – Opera Holland Park’s Matthew Waldren will be conducting their upcoming La Traviata – yet there’s something humble about this group of graduates. We’re greeted like old friends when we arrive, the directors themselves stand behind the bar serving wine and crisps in the interval, and a illustrator family friend is behind the company’s beautiful posters.

Paola Cuffolo directs tonight’s Baroque double bill – John Blow’s Venus and Adonis followed by Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – with just a touch of choreography and marginal costume, yet her uncluttered approach allows the music of both operas to ‘speak’. The performers sit motionless when they’re not required: we can reflect (the acoustics of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden lends a spirituality to these stately scores) and, above all, listen.

The five-piece string and harpsichord ensemble, conducted by Cambridge graduate William Cole, really listen to one another too. Their touch is light, and the music bounces (though the sound of the strings is occasionally clouded by the harpsichord).

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Christopher Diffey as Aeneas and Esther Brazil as Dido

Purcell followed Blow at every turn of his career. Ten years Blow’s junior, Purcell was like an irritating younger sibling: he took, bettered and cramped his predecessor’s style (not to mention copying his attractive bouffant perm). Both operas premiered at the same London girls school just five years apart and if tonight is anything to go by, the Blow is a mere hors d’oeuvre compared to the Purcell.

Venus and Adonis gets off to a shaky start – the ‘chorus’ (just four singers here) are not all born actors and some seem a bit self-conscious, unsure where they stand in this limbo between a solemn-faced concert and a fully acted out production.

But it quickly warms up, and to negate this opening opera completely would be unfair because the bewitching effect of the whole evening is down to its two phenomenal female leads – Belinda Evans (a Britten-Pears Young Artist) as the goddess Venus, and Esther Brazil (Royal Academy graduate and high flying concert soloist) as Dido – whose judicious performances highlight the common aspect between these two operas: a tormented woman.

Both works are deeply intuitive when it comes to the female psyche (it’s unsurprising that the librettist for Venus and Adonis was female) and reveal how little our emotions have changed over the past 300 years. For it’s precisely the extent to which these women value their emotional independence that makes them fear falling in love. Both fail to resist it, however, and are ultimately confronted by what they fear most: loss. Belinda Evans is so possessed by Venus that she has real tears running down her cheeks as she walks off stage after Adonis’ death.

The two operas have a lot of ensemble work. I long for more indulgent solos, but when they do happen they’re probably so delicious because they’ve been rationed. After two hours, Esther Brazil’s ‘When I am Laid in Earth’ is a spellbinding climax to the evening.

Christopher Webb excels, too, as a sincere yet charismatic Adonis, and countertenor James Hall sings Cupid with jaunty charm. Cuffolo has a way of bringing a softness to the characters, who could easily seem detached and merely symbolic. Tonight they actually seem like real people, who give each other cuddles, pats on the back and winks. And a scene with Venus teaching her baby cherubs about love, lifts the spirits.

For more information about Opera Lyrica’s upcoming productions, click here.

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Belinda Evans as Venus laments her fate, in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis