Italian Opera was slow to gain traction in England. Attempts to present English language all-sung opera were hampered by the lack of singers who possessed the training in coloratura arias with virtuoso embellishment and in singing recitative who were also able to sing in English, and such cut-price works were unsatisfactory.
Rather than continue to 'dumb down', in 1715 Johann Christoph Pepusch who had the previous year been appointed musical director at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, was able to call upon the talents of Italian soprano Margarita de L'Epine (later to be his wife) and English contralto Jane Barbier for his masque "Venus and Adonis", intended to "give the Town a little good Musick in a Language they understand" as it was "an easier Matter to instruct two or three Performers in tolerable English than to teach a whole Nation Italian".
Despite the understated title of "masque" it is a mini-opera employing all the devices of Italian opera seria, with virtuoso da capo arias, secco recitative, arioso and accompagnato passages, ensemble singing and virtuoso instrumental. In particular Pepusch made considerable use of arioso passages to address the low tolerance of English audiences for lengthy recitativi secchi, providing a model for Handel's later Acis and Galatea (and the notes discuss further possible connections between Pepusch and that later work, and with Handel himself).
The premiere on 12 March 1715 began a run of 23 performances, and it was revived in the 1718-19 season, again in 1725 and again in 1730. Two obvious questions arise, namely why this clearly successful attempt to bring Italianate opera to English audiences in their native language did not start a tradition, and secondly why this charming work which is more than just a historical curiosity has never been recorded before (and I would wonder how many people had even heard of it - I certainly hadn't).
On this recording Venus is sung by mezzo Ciara Hendrick and Adonis by Philippa Hyde, both acquitting themselves well despite a few off moments which slightly take the gloss off an otherwise good disc. Tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson as Mars gets a look in for a couple of arias and a handful of recitatives. The playing by The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen (crazy name, crazy guys??!?!) is sprightly and overall director Robert Rawson has done a creditable job. The booklet has a few pages of good notes on the history behind the work, a synopsis, a discussion of Pepusch's characterisation and recreating the 1715 Drury Lane version for this recording.