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Sunday, February 06, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

A little naughty music: Early Music Guild explores Restoration England

Seattle Times music critic

Theater

It may not have been the best of times or the worst of times, but it was certainly among the naughtiest of times.

Restoration England, which marked the end of Cromwell's Puritan regime with the accession of merry monarch Charles II, was an era that makes Paris Hilton seem like a convent girl and "Sex and the City" like a school picnic. In Charles II's reign, all the prohibitions of Cromwell's era were repealed; the theaters were reopened, low-cut lace replaced buttoned-up wool, and the royal motto was evidently "thou shalt party hearty."

A rarity of that era, John Blow's "Venus and Adonis," was premiered around 1683 before the king and his courtiers, with one of the king's many concubines portraying Venus. (That was Moll Davis, a well-known actress and singer dubbed "the most impertinent slut in the world" by Puritan chronicler John Evelyn.) The role of Cupid went to Lady Mary Tudor, the love child of Moll Davis by Charles II.

"Venus and Adonis" will get a 21st-century revival next weekend, when the Early Music Guild presents it alongside Purcell's "Ode to St. Cecilia" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. next Sunday, in the Falls Theater at ACT.

Fans of baroque music are likely to snap up tickets quickly, particularly if they remember the Guild's huge 2002 hit, its first-ever baroque opera production. That show, an imaginative and expert staging of two short operas by Monteverdi, was one of the highlights of the season. The sets (a motorcycle, three chairs and some cloth) may have been done on a shoestring, but the productions were lavish with talent and creativity.

Now the Guild is looking to repeat that success, this time with music of Restoration England. "Venus and Adonis" technically belongs to that long-vanished genre, the masque (a musical-drama entertainment in which players usually represent allegorical or mythical figures). At the same time, however, "Venus and Adonis" can be described as one of England's earliest operas, a cousin to Purcell's better-known "Dido and Aeneas."

Coming up

"Venus and Adonis," presented by the Early Music Guild, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. next Sunday, in the Falls Theater at ACT (206-325-7066).

The premiere of "Venus" probably took place in a setting similar to that described in John Evelyn's diary, where he speaks of the king, "toying with his concubines," accompanied by courtiers who gambled with their gold at the gaming table in an atmosphere of "inexpressible luxury and prophanesse ... and all dissolution."

Matters will be toned down considerably at this weekend's Seattle performances, but the production's visual elements will borrow freely from the gorgeous costumes immortalized by royal painter Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680; he painted Charles II and several royal mistresses).

"We chose ACT Theater because of the clarity of acoustics. It's smaller than Town Hall, but the words [the show is in English] should be easy to hear," explains producer Theodore Deacon. He joins designer/director James Middleton, music director Fred Hauptman, choreographer Anna Mansbridge and Early Music Guild executive director August Denhard on the production team. Their goal is to keep the "chamber opera" feeling alive, bringing the singers and the action as close to the audience as they would have been in Charles II's court.

Dance was a major part of court entertainment, and Anna Mansbridge's Seattle Early Dance will provide the "Venus and Adonis" dances (as they did in the first baroque opera presentation in 2002).

"There's not a lot of space," says Mansbridge of the ACT stage. "The stage has width but no depth, just like a ballroom. Dance of that era was based on bilateral symmetry, with dancers mirroring each other."

Although none of the choreographic notation from the 17th-century "Venus" performances survives, Mansbridge has researched a variety of elements that contribute to this production, including a 1588 treatise by Thoinot Arbeau, early dance manuals and even paintings (such as Botticelli's "Primavera," with its depiction of the Three Graces). There will be a Huntsmen's Dance, complete with huntsmen's blunderbusses. Four dancing children will represent cupids; the Graces have what Mansbridge calls "a lovely Sarabande" (a stately, slow-tempo dance).

"This is not something I could put on myself," Mansbridge explains of the "Venus and Adonis" dances.

"This is how dance was done in that time, as part of an opera. It is so wonderful to be able to present it this way."

Hauptman, the music director, says the production will have 14 dancers, 11 singers, nine instrumentalists and three dogs.

"Yes, we are putting children and animals on the stage," he says, mindful of the many hazards of doing so.

"The libretto mentions three dogs, and we are having three." That number includes Deacon's golden retriever, Cosmo.

Middleton's opulent designs, created in beautiful red-chalk drawings, extend to some exquisite fabrics. Venus has a blue-and-gold laced-up bodice lined, rather surprisingly, in fabric that declares "Chargers" in bright blue (only bargain fabrics are used for the costume linings). Punning on a line in the libretto that refers to "the magazine of Venus" ("magazine" implying "arsenal"), Middleton has created an actual magazine by pasting fabric swatches, drawings, cartoons and copies of period artwork into a prop book so lovely that it should be on display after the show.

What happens in the opera? Middleton explains that Venus arrives in town "sort of like Princess Margaret arriving to open a hospital. She is welcomed by all. Adonis sings a little solo in the chorus, and she nips off to the inn with him."

After the couple celebrates their love in song, Adonis decides to go hunting. Meanwhile, Venus and Cupid instruct the local country folk in the correct behavior of lovers, and the Graces arrive to help Venus in her toilette of beauty rituals. In the third act, Adonis returns from the hunt, mortally wounded by a disobliging boar. He expires amidst musical lamentations.

Because "Venus and Adonis" is rather short, the producers have decided to precede it with Purcell's "Ode to St. Cecilia's Day" — incorporated into the action of the opera as a welcome ode to Venus from the local nymphs and shepherds. They're changing the word "Cecilia" to "Cytheria," one of Venus' poetic names (referring to her queenship of the Greek island of Kythara — whose name also may be the origin of the word "guitar").

Appearing as Venus will be Amanda Jane Kelley; Glenn Guhr sings Adonis and Anne-Carolyn Bird will be Cupid. Among the performers are such early-music stars as Kim Pineda and Charles Coldwell (recorders), Linda Melsted and Olga Hauptman (violins), Mary Manning (viola), Claire Garabedian (cello), Fred Hauptman (harpsichord), August Denhard (lute) and Elizabeth Brown (guitar). Denhard is especially pleased that nearly all the performers and production team are local. Seattle finally has achieved a sort of critical mass in early music, where top-level activity is not only sustainable but also serves as a draw for more incoming talent. Creating a stable funding base, however, is always a challenge.

"We intend to produce regular performances of this beautiful genre," Denhard explains. "There has been a modest groundswell of funders who recognize the success of the last opera production. We recently met a $20,000 challenge grant with help from PONCHO, the Seattle Foundation and the Nesholm Family Foundation, plus a new Opera Circle for donors to our baroque operas." Those donors get to attend a dress rehearsal and have a backstage tour (now set for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at ACT). It's all a chance to return to those naughty days of yesteryear, or at least to enjoy what promises to be a remarkable show.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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