Technically John Blow’s Venus and Adonis is a masque1 and indeed he himself described it as such. I suspect that he called it a masque simply because masques were a known quantity and operas were not. Leaving aside questions of nomenclature you can make a good case that with Venus and Adonis Blow took the masque form and elevated to such a height that he became the creator of the first English opera. It’s certainly at least as much an opera as Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and there’s a fair amount of evidence that Purcell who admired Blow as his teacher, a musician, and as a friend had Venus and Adonis in mind when he composed Dido and Aeneas.
The National Centre for Early Music have a superb guide to Venus and Adonis which you can find here: NCEM – The National Centre for Early Music – Venus and Adonis – Background information (the page has a link from which you can download it as a PDF). Nothing I can add will improve upon the NCEM’s efforts so I’ll confine myself to commenting on the music itself. I think it bears favourable comparison to Purcell’s work – certainly Purcell felt so and showed it when he took it as a model. The two works are very similar in their dramatic structure, subject matter, length, and above all in their musical expressiveness. The difference lies in the fact that Purcell was a genius and Blow was "merely" very very talented. So when Venus laments Cupid’s death we’re reminded strongly of Dido’s lament it’s quite as poignant and expressive it’s just that the melody isn’t quite up to Purcell’s standard. It’s a pity because Blow had a far better libretto to work with the characters are far better drawn, there’s a good deal of genuinely witty dialogue, and the music is superb it’s very expressive, very varied, and appeals directly to the emotions. It’s also very distinctively British far more so than Purcell’s work in fact some of Blow’s of his melodies evoke Celtic folk songs. It’s all of these as well as being very elegantly written. If you like Purcell and haven’t heard this before you’re in for a surprise and a treat. Enjoy :-).
Stanford University have the Libretto here: Blow: Venus & Adonis
- Marin Baroque with the San Francisco Renaissance Dancers.
- Daniel Canosa, Conductor
- Marla Volovna, Stage Director
- Jennifer Meller, Director & Choreographer, SF Renaissance Dancers
- Venus: Helene Zindarsian
- Adonis: Nikolas Nackley
- Cupid: Rosemary Beecher Bryant
- Masques were a form of aristocratic entertainment in England in the 16th and 17th centuries that originally consisted of pantomime and dancing but later including dialogue and song, presented in elaborate productions given by amateur and professional actors. They were wildly popular with the aristocracy from Elizabethan times on but because of their expense only the wealthiest patrons would commission them. They usually had a mythological or allegorical theme – mfi. ↩