Johann Christoph Pepusch, aka John Christopher Pepusch or just plain Dr Pepusch, was born in Berlin in 1677, but moved to England around 1700 where he became a leading light of London’s musical life. In 1726, he was one of the founders of the Academy of Ancient Music and two years later scored his greatest success arranging the music for John Gay’s runaway hit, The Beggar’s Opera.
The peak of his career coincided with the rise of the Italian opera in London, and, as his involvement with Gay’s famous lampoon would suggest, Pepusch was strong on the side of those seeking an English alternative to continental excess.
Written in 1715, his masque Venus and Adonis looked like it might be just the thing to ‘reconcile Musick to the English Tongue.’ For all its Englishness – and it’s a clear precursor of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – the work is packed with the stock in trade of Italian opera including da capo arias, virtuoso instrumental effects and plenty of accompagnato recitative.
So, what’s it like? The immediate observation listening to what is a world-premiere recording on the enterprising Ramée label is how can this melodious and memorable music have languished until 2017? The level of invention may not quite match Handel, but it’s head and shoulders above Blow’s opera of the same name, a work that has had several outings on disc. The plot is a little ‘Carry On’ with Adonis hopping in and out of bushes to dodge the cuckolded Mars, while poor old Venus ends up rejected by both men who ultimately regard her as untrustworthy – some 1715 social commentary, one suspects.
But listen to Adonis’s hunting song How pleasant is ranging the fields, or Venus’s perky vengeance aria Cupid! Cupid! bend thy bow. I guarantee by the da capo you’ll be humming along. The greatest pleasures come in the middle of the work with a beguiling sleep aria, Gentle slumbers, for Adonis followed by Chirping warblers, Venus’s bird-song aria with recorder obligato. Adonis’s O! welcome! welcome! gentle death! is another winner.
The two women cope well with tricky vocal roles. Clara Hendrick is a warm-toned Venus, Philippa Hyde a bright Adonis. That they are insufficiently differentiated is mostly Pepusch’s fault. Richard Edgar-Wilson’s Mars sounds like an elderly fop – an odd, but not inconceivable choice. The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen under Robert Rawson perform brisk and scintillating wonders with the crafted score.
Beautifully recorded, Venus and Adonis isn’t just a milestone in the history of English opera, it’s a charming work that cries out to be seen as well as heard. Highly recommended.