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At the roots of English opera

The grand finale of Opera Rara 2018, which presented – for good reason – English Baroque music, was also a foretaste of the upcoming British edition of the Misteria Paschalia Festival 2018, for which we of course invite you already. It will be supervised by John Butt – conductor, organist, harpsichordist and Glasgow University professor, who performed together with his Scottish ensemble Dunedin Consort for the audience who tightly filled the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre. Those audience members who appreciate the idea of historical performance must have felt particularly satisfied: Butt is not only an outstanding practitioner in this field but also an enthusiastic theorist – as he demonstrated in his book Playing with History (2002), published by Cambridge University Press.

The event took us back to the fascinating beginnings of English musical theatre, which had developed around the royal court. As we know from the dedication, it was for the entertainment of king Charles II that John Blow wrote Venus and Adonis in 1683, a work considered the first British opera (originally categorised as a masque, but unlike masques, it lacks spoken parts). An anonymous libretto – based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – neatly and concisely presents the famous and tragic story of love between the goddess of love Venus and the ill-fated hunter Adonis, featuring quite a large involvement of frolicsome Cupid. The artists skilfully highlighted the character of each part of the opera: the idyll and cheerfulness of the prologue, the amorous passion of the protagonists in the first act (with sensuality intriguingly co-built by two recorders), the impish playfulness of the second act (with the chorus humorously performing a spelling lesson), until finally reaching a mournful ending. The beautiful lament of Venus With solemn pomp let mourning Cupids bear from the latter was movingly sung by soprano Mhairi Lawson partnered by bass/baritone Edward Grint as Adonis and Emilie Renard as Cupid, with her resonant, bright soprano.

 Lawson and Grint were also to the fore during the second piece presented that evening: a 1692 semi-opera entitled The Fairy Queen by John Blow’s famous student – Henry Purcell. The work of the British Orpheus – as the composer was hailed after his untimely death – is based on A Midsummer Night's Dream in its spoken fragments while unfolding a truly fantastic array of characters in the musical fragments, significantly departing from the genius from Stratford. Performed by the orchestra with precision, the extensive instrumental parts, the virtuosic, melismatic soprano arias Ye gentle spirits of the air and Thrice happy lovers, the brave extolment of love If love’s a sweet passion and the lament O let me weep will certainly stay in the mind for a long time. Just like many other wondrous phrases from this year’s Opera Rara Festival.