Whilst aware of the period of the piece, I was not prepared for the range of unfamiliar, and therefore exotic stringed and wind instruments displayed in position on stage. The sounds they produced when expertly played by the small (but perfectly formed) musical group were also new to my musically untrained ear. The programme informs me that the enormous, yet still elegant, excessively long necked guitar-like instrument is a theorboe. It’s not a name I know but I enjoyed the sounds it made. In harmony with the various other violas, violins, guitars, recorders and harpsichord, the pared down orchestra it joined offered not only a well-balanced accompaniment to the singers, but pleasant, interesting and impressive performances of their own. The only thing that might have improved my enjoyment of these musical interludes would have been the addition of the dances that they would traditionally have accompanied.
Having expected to just see a performance of Venus and Adonis, the first pre-interval scene-setting section of the evening came as a bonus. The leading artists, Sophie Daneman, Giles Underwood, and the orchestra gave great performances of a selection of more bite sized operatic and instrumental pieces, which really helped me, a Restoration period novice, familiarise myself with the sounds and styles of that time. There was a good combination of jaunty, humorous (at least, they made me smile) tunes, what I imagine to be the crowd pleasing numbers of the day, and what seemed to be show-off pieces where the guitar and theorboe players combined in a demonstration of fiddly string plucking and strumming skills.
Fitting nicely in to the forty minutes of the second half, Venus and Adonis was, in my opinion, the perfect length for an opera, and included everything one would expect and hope for from this genre. Love, humour, tragedy, lament and pathos, but with the added delight of kids on stage! I really wasn’t expecting that, but it was a real treat. The professionals were joined by children of varying ages from Salisbury Cathedral School and the Pegasus School in Oxford. 13 year old soprano Rebecca Lyles stood alone on the stage as the prologue began, very much the young girl, dressed in her school uniform, smiling nervously into the audience at a parent, teacher or friend - and then she opened her mouth and brought forth the pitch perfect, skilfully tuneful sounds of a mature and professional singer. I don’t think I was the only one in the auditorium who found themselves beaming with pleasure, sitting a little further forward in their seats and looking forward to her next part in the performance.
There were further great moments to come when some 15 or so more children joined Rebecca and Sophie Daneman (Venus) in an amusing choral number. They played their parts brilliantly as the crowd of little cupids, teaching lessons in love. In the final tragic act, their carefully timed, funereal march around the stage, to finally bear away the fallen Adonis, added a real solemnity and emotion to the already heart rending final cries of Venus as she laments the loss of her love.
The performances of all the professionals were impressive and highly entertaining, but the children really stole the show. Not opera as I know it but proof that it can be for all ages and tastes, and that Britain really has got talent!