Florentine Opera goes for Baroque

Michael Muckian

Fans of opera obscura and early music are in for a treat this month with the Florentine Opera Co.’s premiere of John Blow’s “Venus & Adonis” and Henry Purcell’s “Dido & Aeneas.” The Baroque twin-spin matches the talents of Blow, who composed what is considered the earliest surviving British opera, with those of his student Purcell and the first English operatic masterpiece. The pair will play at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall in Milwaukee May 13-22.

The Florentine decided to go for Baroque once again largely based on the success of “Semele” by George Friedrich Handel two seasons ago, according to William Florescu, the opera’s stage director.  The accessibility of Baroque music is a big draw for opera novices and fans alike.

“I made the decision to bring back Baroque as soon as possible based on the enthusiastic response,” Florescu says. “The Baroque period’s dance-like energy and the brevity of these two operas make them the perfect evening for everyone from opera neophyte to veteran.  And they are extraordinary works for opera geeks like me!”

The story behind “Venus,” if it matters, involves the namesake god and goddess as well as Cupid and a host of Cupid wannabes. For good measure, there are also shepherds, shepherdesses, huntsmen and an enormous boar. There is loss of love, remorse and the requisite death.

The boar reportedly does not sing.

In “Dido,” the title characters struggle with a benighted love affair amid the drive to establish a new Troy. A jealous sorceress dresses a spirit as Mercury, who convinces an unwitting Aeneas to sail for lands unknown, much to Dido’s despair. There is an argument, a misunderstanding and the requisite death. The Cupid wannabes, presumably held over from the previous show, reappear to scatter rose petals on the tomb.

“I have always loved “Dido,” but it does not make for a complete evening,” Florescu says. “Studying them, I realized that Purcell had fashioned the opera structurally on his mentor’s earlier work, so it made great sense to present them together.”

There are distinct musical similarities between Blow’s “Venus” and Purcell’s “Dido,” but Blow’s work sounds “earlier” in style and more spare, Florescu says. Purcell’s melodies echo those of Handel and Vivaldi.

“What the two operas have in common is extraordinarily beautiful choral writing,” Florescu says. “Blow is becoming more popular – he’s quite a wonderful composer – and his ‘Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell’ is a breathtaking work.”

Although Purcell was Blow’s student and only 10 years younger, he also became his friend and preceded his mentor in death by 13 years, encouraging Blow to compose the ode.

Florescu made a conscious decision to present the Baroque operas in the more intimate confines of Vogel Hall rather than the much large Uihlein Hall, where the Florentine usually performs. His goal is to replicate the 17th century “jewel box” style of theaters in which the works might first have been performed.

“Our goal is to give operagoers the feeling that they popped into a working Baroque theater,” Florescu says. “‘Turandot’ they ain’t, so Uihlein would not have been appropriate.”

The two casts feature the return of Metropolitan Opera soprano Patricia Risely and baritone Craig Verm. Countertenor Ian Howell, formerly with the all-male ensemble Chanticleer, and mezzo-soprano and Milwaukee native Jean Broekhuizen will both make their Florentine Opera debuts. Members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Christopher Larkin, will accompany both performances.

The Florentine Opera presents “Venus & Adonis” and “Dido & Aeneas” at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall in Milwaukee May 13-15, May 18-19 and May 21-22. Call 414-291-5700, ext. 224, or go to www.florentineopera.org.