Opera Review: Florentine Looks To British Court

By William R. Wineke Special to Channel 3000

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera consistently provides the most interesting programming of any opera company in the Midwest.

Its productions aren’t always the most popular and, sometimes, they fall short of their goal. But a season ticket holder to the Florentine can pretty much expect to see operas there he isn’t likely to encounter elsewhere.

This spring, the Florentine looks back to the late 1600s and the court of King Charles II with two short operas believed to have been first performed there.

John Blow’s “Venus & Adonis” is, according to opera scholar Corliss Phillabaum, the first opera composed in England. Venus is, of course, a goddess and Adonis a mortal, though the most beautiful mortal ever born. When the opera was performed a court, the role of Venus was sung by the kind’s mistress and the role of Cupid was played by their illegitimate son.

In the Florentine production, the role is sung by soprano Greer Davis and Cupid’s role is sung by countertenor Ian Howell. Craig Vern sang the role of Adonis.

The plot has Venus falling in love with Adonis, whom she encourages to go on a boar hunt, a really bad idea because Adonis is fatally injured.

In “Dido and Aeneas,” composed in 1688 by Blow’s protege Henry Purcell, Aeneas falls in love with beautiful woman Dido, but a sorceress sends a spirit disguised as the god Mercury (countertenor Ian Howell again singing in falsetto) to tell him he has to leave to set up a new Troy. Aeneas later decides to stick with Dido, but it is too late; she takes poison and dies.

Now, as grand opera, this isn’t very grand. The singers are all first rate, especially Davis, who also sings the role of Belinda, Dido’s handmaiden, in the second opera.

But classic opera has the ability to make the audience relate to the characters; we feel for Carmen, weep for Violetta, wince at Otello.

These early English operas don’t provide that depth of character. Rather, they invite the audience to pretend it is part of a royal court where court musicians put on short plays for the amusement of the king and his guests. They’re not deep, but they are interesting.

The two operas will be presented again May 21st and 22nd in Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center.

Next year’s Florentine season begins a little more traditionally, with Puccini’s “Turandot,” Nov. 4 and 6; Carlyle Floyd’s “Susannah” March 16 and 18 and Mozart’s “Idomeneo” May 18 and 20.