English baroque double bill

Most opera lovers will be familiar with the Drottningholm Palace Theatre near Stockholm.  Less familiar is the Confidencen Theatre in the Ulriksdal Palace.  It’s a small theatre (200 seats?) built in the 1650s and restored in the early 21st century.  It now hosts concerts and operas and in August 2021 it played John Blow’s Venus and Adonis in a double bill with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  The operas were recorded and issued on Blu-ray and DVD.


Both works are staged in more or less baroque style. by director William Relton  Painted flats constitute the scenery and costumes are sort of 17th century; long coats for the men, full skirts and plunging necklines for the ladies.  And wigs.  The Blow piece is played pretty much for laughs, except for the ending which gets a bit more serious.


There’s a playful prologue in which countertenor Rupert Enticknap camps it up as Cupid. In Act 1 Adonis keeps trying to peek behind Venus’ dressing screen to the annoyance of her maid and there are some very silly dogs.  Dance is appropriately and well incorporated, given that there are no specialists.  All the dancing is done, rather well, by the singers which both Blow and Purcell might have expected.


The Act 2 with the little cupids is very playful with some very cute children involved running all over the tiny stage.  It all becomes a bit more serious, and elegant, in Act 3 with Adonis’ death.  It’s a nice contrast to the frivolity of the earlier acts.


There’s excellent singing and acting.  Swedish mezzo Ida Ränzlöv is pretty much an ideal Venus.  She’s tall and stately and has a lovely voice.  She’s well matched (except in height!) by Norwegian baritone Bernt Ola Volungsholen as Adonis.  He pivots nicely from something of a cheeky chappy in Act 1 to portraying the dying Adonis with some gravitas.  British countertenor Rupert Enticknap is excellent as Cupid.


Five other singers portray all the maids, courtiers, huntsmen, cupids etc.  All the singing is clear and idiomatic and the English is excellent.  Subtitles are really not needed.  There are maybe a dozen period instruments in the pit conducted by Olof Boman.  They are very effective producing a muscular, and slightly astringent, sound that feels very appropriate.


The Purcell, which uses the same forces, is much darker in every way.  The colour palette is blue and purple and black, relieved with silver which actually seems to deepen the sense of darkness.  The movement style is more formal.  There’s some very stylish singing from Ränzlov as Dido and Volungholen as Aeneas but perhaps the vocal star here is Christina Larrsson Malmberg as Belinda; very stylish with a genuine trill.  Enticknap sings the Sorceress.  He plays it pretty straight with out too much vocal exaggeration and with quite subtle acting.  Indeed the cave scene is more sinister and less campy than I’ve often seen it with Enticknap and his sidekicks; Lisa Carlioth and Matilda Siden Silfver sticking long needles into a voodoo doll of Dido.


There’s a bit of light relief with the children back for the Sailor’s song (Mikael Stenbaek) but generally it’s all very sober with an edge to the confrontation between Dido and Aeneas in Act 3 and some lovely lighting for the final ensemble.  Ränzlöv sings the Lament with great beauty and feeling. This is a very satisfying double bill and one wonders why the two pieces aren’t done together more often.[1]


Jonas Hermansson directed the filming.  It’s a small stage and mostly straightforward but the cave scene is very dark indeed and he tends to close in very close on the characters to compensate.  It’s a difficult scene to film and when he does go wider even Blu-ray video quality is stretched so he has a point.  The sound quality (DTS-HD-MA and hi res stereo) is excellent.  There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is very basic with really just a short synopsis of each piece.  Opus Arte has very much gone down-market in this department. recently  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.


fn1: If nothing else I finally correctly parsed “with tushes far exceeding those that Venus’ huntsman slew”.  I’ve always assumed this meant that Aeneas has killed a bigger boar then that killed by Venus’ huntsman but, of course, it’s referring to the boar that kills Adonis.  Doh!


Catalogue number: Opus Arte OABD7308D


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