Aminta e Fillide & Venus and Adonis

Aminta e Fillide & Venus and Adonis
Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Milton Court. 3 June 2019

In a double bill of operas, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama puts its Opera, Music, and Production Arts students through their paces. Directed by Victoria Newlyn with designers also from Guildhall teaching staff, it featured an enormous number of students covering all aspects of opera. The two operas were well-chosen, contrasted John Blow’s English High Baroque opera (semi-opera/masque) Venus and Adonis, composed in 1683, just before Handel was born, and Handel’s youthful cantata Aminta e Fillide written when he was 22 during his Italian years in the style that would change English music for much of the 18th-century.

Aminta e Fillide was commissioned by Rome’s Academy of Arcadia. As portrayed here, Aminta is the sort or irritating loser who latches onto the most attractive girl in school. Fillide goes further than playing hard to get, being ruthlessly dismissive of the little twerp until, with a little help from Cupid, she succumbs to his persistence. Much of the music was reused by Handel in later operas, notably Agrippina (1709) and Rinaldo (1711), so there was a helpful air of familiarity, starting with the Overture, Fillide’s delightful Fiamma bella and Aminta’s Se vago rio all of which reappear in Rinaldo. Fillide’s ‘Non si puo dar un cor seems to foresee Cleopatra’s ‘Tu la mia stella sei in Giulio Cesare.

I don’t know how much teaching time the Guildhall directing staff have, or how many operas they are involved in during the year but, based on this production, I would guess not many of either. They threw everything into these two pieces, notably Aminta e Fillide where an entire career’s worth of directorial ideas was crammed into less than an hour. This typical bit of Arcadian nonsense has just two singers. It could have been performed with no more than a pot-plant to suggest the Arcadian backdrop to this tale of what we would now consider as obsessive stalking. But the two excellent singers, Harriet Burns (Aminta) and Carmen Artaza (Fillide) were thrown into a bewildering bombardment of directorial bits and bobs and scene changes, sometimes overlapping each other within a single line of sung text. Learning the text and music is enough for opera singers, but their greatest achievement was managing to learn the extraordinary barrage of stage directions and pandemonium of props that were thrown at them, sometimes literally. I would quite understand if they spent the rest of the singing career insisting on concert performances, rather than risk exposing themselves to what opera directors are likely to through at them. But, having survived this commendably, with excellent singing and acting, I doubt anything else will worry them.

Aminta 1.jpegCarmen Artaza & Harriet Burns

Venus and Adonis is an opera with a prologue and three acts, composed around 1683 for the court of King Charles II. Cupid accidentally pierces his mother, Venus with one of his arrows, with the result that she immediately falls in love with the next person she sees the hunter Adonis. The setting for this production seemed to be the Southern Amerian swamp-lands, initially with a ramshackle porch which could only just contain the enormous cast of 17 (five soloists and a chorus of twelve). In a complex bit of deconstruction that must have taken a lot of working out, this was transformed into an airboat as Adonis sets off to the hunt, with the inevitable consequences.

Venus 1.jpegSiân Dicker & Matthew Palmer

The subplot for its first audience was that practically nobody in the court was faithful, a rather telling observation given that it is believed that in the first performance, Cupid was played Charles II’s illegitimate daughter, the 10-years-old Mary Tudor, and Venus by his former lover Moll Davies. On this occasion, Venus was Siân Dicker with Matthew Palmer alternating with Andrew Hamilton as Adonis over the four performances. Collin Shay was Cupid, Katherine McIndoe a shepherdess, and Damian Arnold a shepherd. Blow adds a number of comic scenes notably including the spelling lesson for the young cupids. 

Venus 2.jpegYoung cupids, awaiting their spelling lesson

The singers would have learnt a lot about English late-17th-century music, as would the 14-strong orchestra (reduced to 8 for Aminta e Fillide, who were very well directed by Chad Kelly. I don’t they were using period instruments, apart from the three recorder players in Venus and Adonis, but they showed a grasp of period style. Although not quite as hectic as Aminta e Fillide, the design and production was not without its complexities, not least dealing with the enormous cast.

The singing throughout was excellent, albeit often with rather too much vibrato for my own taste and, arguably, the singing style of the period. This is an unfortunate aspect of much singing teaching in the UK where young singers are seemingly encouraged to develop vibrato without learning the difficult task of how to control it. The large production team also deserve congratulations on what must have taken an enormous amount of time and effort. There are three more performances, this evening (Wednesday 5th June), and Friday 7th and Monday 10 June. Details here.

Venus 3.jpeg

Production photos: Clive Barda