Despite baby-steps over the years, America’s musical scene, especially opera, remains decidedly un-HIP. (HIP: “historically-informed performance,” also called “period performance.”)  While European opera houses turn increasingly to “original instrument” orchestras and specialist singers for seventeenth and eighteenth century works, this rarely occurs in the US. 

However, since 1981, the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) has mounted rare operas using its own period orchestra and a faithful roster of singers.  More recently, thanks to the German CD label CPO, many of its best productions have been recorded, including its latest, John Blow’s 1683 opera Venus and Adonis.

A quick glance at next season shows Les Musiciens du Louvre in the pit at the Netherlands Opera (which is also importing Concerto Köln), the Berlin Staatsoper and, most surprisingly, supplanting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Staatsoper for a revival of last season’s Alcina, again showcasing Vesselina Kasarova’s shocking train-wreck of a Ruggiero.

Strasbourg imports I Barrochisti for Vivaldi’s Il Farnace, Brussels’ La Monnaie the intriguingly named B’rock for Handel’s Orlando, and the Paris Opera Le Concert d’Astrée for Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie; these, in addition to the Glyndebourne Festival’s long-term relationship with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  The Zurich Opera even has created its own period orchestra, La Scintilla.

This summer Santa Fe gives the US premiere of Vivaldi’s La Griselda; then San Francisco remounts a thirty-six-year-old production of Handel’s Serse; Chicago a new Rinaldo, the Met both Rodelinda and the newly created baroque pasticcio The Enchanted Island.  However, for all these American companies, the orchestra will be the house’s regular band, the singers only occasionally specialists in baroque opera.

Money and existing union contracts are surely the major reasons behind this situation, and certainly the US doesn’t lack for superbly talented instrumentalists and singers, trained for this repertoire, many of whom have been zigzagging across the country for years playing and singing for the relatively few period instrument orchestras.

While San Francisco, Chicago, even Cleveland have long-established groups, New York has always lagged embarrassingly behind—attempts at establishing an international-level period orchestra have failed—The Classical Band and the New York Collegium, among others.  However, intrepid smaller organizations have stepped up to fill this vacuum.  I remember very appealing fully staged (as well as some concert) operas by Concert Royal and the New York Baroque Dance Company in the 80s and 90s but sadly their respective directors—James Richman and Catherine Turocy (husband and wife)—have mostly decamped to Texas.

Just last month, the American Classical Orchestra staged Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion (but they’ve no opera next season) and this week Big Apple Baroque produces Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.  Many Europeans have been astonished that American philanthropist Ronald Stanton funded the revival of Les Arts Florissants’s production of Lully’s Atys (conducted by American-born William Christie) currently touring France and coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September.  Unfortunately US groups haven’t had similar luck in their fund-raising, except (apparently) for Boston’s biennial festival.

Beginning with the 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée (recorded in 2006), CPO has issued some superb sets by BEMF forces, all co-conducted by their music directors, American lutenists Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette.  Especially impressive are the recordings of the obscure seventeenth century German composer Johann Conradi’s Die schöne und getreue Ariadne, as well as a wonderful Psyché by Lully, both starring Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin.

Remarkably, the two Lully sets compare favorably with those of native French baroque specialists Christophe Rousset and Hervé Niquet. For this newest release, BEMF and CPO have turned to an English piece, Blow’s Venus and Adonis, often dismissed as the poor step-sister to Henry Purcell’s great Dido and Aeneas; yet most commentators believe that Blow’s work (written nearly ten years before Purcell’s) surely influenced it greatly.  Born a decade before Purcell, John Blow also survived him by thirteen years: his second best known work is the “Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell” for two countertenors (the rard Lesne/Steve Dugardin version on Virgin is particularly fine).

Employed as a church composer (eventually the Composer to the Royal Chapel, where he had sung as a boy), Blow wrote little secular music; “Venus” is his only surviving dramatic work, explicitly called “A Masque for the Entertainment of the King,” but many now consider less a masque than the earliest surviving English opera. His king, Charles II, spent his exile during Cromwell’s Commonwealth at Louis XIV’s court, thus Blow’s score for Venus shows him accommodating the royal taste for French-influenced music from its overture and prologue to its many dances.

Listening to Blow’s ravishing music, it’s difficult to imagine that he was regularly denounced as harsh and dissonant. Based on an incident from myth famously recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Blow’s short pastoral work (under an hour) recounts the goddess Venus’s infatuation with the young hunter Adonis whom she encourages to join the hunt for a wild boar during which he is gored, returning to die in his grieving lover’s arms.  This plot, such as it is, takes up only two of the four scenes—the prologue and second act revolve around Venus’ son Cupid and his lessons on love to his band of younger cupids.

The libretto, once rumored to be by famed playwright Aphra Behn, has now been credited to one Anna Kingsmill, and the title role was first sung by the King’s mistress Moll Davies and Cupid by their daughter the ten-year-old Lady Mary Tudor.  Among of the work’s considerable charms are the strange turns of phrase that dot the libretto:

She who those soft Hours misuses,
And a begging Swain refuses,
When she would the time recover,
May she have a feeble Lover.

. . . .

The insolent, the arrogant.
The M. E. R. Mer: C. E. Ce:
Merce: N. A. Na: R. Y. Ry:
The mercenary,
The vain and silly.
The jealous and uneasy,
All, all such as tease ye.

. . . .

Come all ye Graces, come all ye Graces!
‘Tis your Duty to keep a Magazine of Beauty!

Stubbs and O’Dette have cast Amanda Forsythe (an up-and-coming star of the BEMF, and due to sing Nannetta in Covent Garden’s new Falstaff next season) and Tyler Duncan as their unexpectedly young and vulnerable pair.  Forsythe’s sweet, sometimes fragile, even girlish timbre doesn’t exactly conform to one’s expectation of “goddess-like,” but her deft and deeply felt singing makes it work.  Duncan’s lightly virile baritone turns Adonis into more the sensitive lover than the brawny huntsman.

Forsythe and Duncan are particularly effective in the surprisingly erotic opening scene where the lovers murmur each other’s names to each other. The final scene where the mortally wounded Adonis returns is quietly touching rather than epic and grand.  The sprightly Cupid, Mireille Lebel, has a voice rather too similar to Forsythe’s, so there’s not enough contrast between mother and son.

The small orchestra, just twelve musicians, surprisingly includes a percussionist.  As music of this period often allows conductors to establish their own instrumentation (it’s rarely specified in the score), Stubbs and O’Dette add an oboe, unlike other recordings, bringing a nicely tangy twist to the usual mix of recorders, strings (both bowed and plucked) and keyboard.

I’m less convinced by the added percussion however, particularly the drum during the magnificent final chorus mourning Adonis’s death (undoubtedly the high point of the score).  Its use strikes me as overly-insistent and reaching for a grandeur that doesn’t fit with the otherwise intimate nature of the performance.

Its small scale contrasts starkly to the recording by René Jacobs who is predictably idiosyncratic—his orchestra (double the size of the BEMF’s) sounds overly lush and mannered by comparison.  Its opulence is abetted by Gerald Finley’s almost too commanding Adonis, but Jacobs fatally betrays his lovers by saddling them with a vinegar-voiced countertenor as Cupid!

Much more appealing is Philip Pickett’s recording whose dance music is completely bewitching, but it’s likewise sabotaged by a casting disaster: Catherine Bott’s utterly sexless Venus, exemplifying everything bad about straight-tone singing.  My favorite version remains Charles Medlam’s (out-of-print but used copies are widely available): a very Purcellian reading highlighted by the perky Cupid of Nancy Argenta and especially the warmly sensuous Venus of Lynne Dawson.

These three competing versions feature only Venus and Adonis.  CPO generously includes three other Blow works, a sprightly “Welcome Song” well sung by Forsythe (although a little squeaky at times), a ground for two violins and continuo and a wittily done setting of John Dryden’s poem “Chloe Found Amyntas lying all in Tears” for two tenors and a bass.  In addition, the CD includes a lavish booklet of over 100 pages containing essays, bios, as well as many photos of the 2008 BEMF staging of Venus.

Perhaps little by little changes are coming for HIP-opera in the US.  Like the BEMF, Washington, DC-based Opera Lafayette has been raising its profile via recordings—on the Naxos label (although unfortunately the excellent 2010 production of Gluck’s Armide was not recorded).  For the past few years, it has also been bringing an opera to New York, and, most significantly, Opera Lafayette has been invited to perform Monsigny’s Le Roi et le fermier in February 2012 at the Opéra Royal at Versailles.

This summer the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra—which used to have a major recording contract–is touring Handel’s Orlando (albeit only in concert form) to the Ravinia, Tanglewood and Mostly Mozart Festivals.  And the Baroque Band (founded just in 2007) partners with Chicago Opera Theater for Handel’s Teseo in April 2012.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival opened this past weekend with the first US staging of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe with Amanda Forsythe in the title role and French countertenor heartthrob Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione.

I would be remiss not to mention that Steffani’s revival began in the 70s and 80s with performances in New York by the Clarion Society under its founder, the late Newell Jenkins, an important pioneer of baroque opera.  BEMF is already looking forward to its next festival—programming for 2013 the modern premiere of Graupner’s Antiochus und Stratonica!