“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.” So, in 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson explained why she had slashed the Rokeby Venus, a masterpiece by Velázquez which still hangs today (restored) in the National Gallery. Edward Lambert’s The Art of Venus takes Richardson’s act of aesthetic terrorism as a starting point for imagining Venus herself, a goddess both mighty and furious at her reduction, by humanity, to a mere sex symbol. Venus, sung with sculptural beauty and luminous, near-maleficent presence by Kate Symonds-Joy, rails with disdainful fury at a rather endearing Mars (smooth-voiced baritone Dominic Bowe) that “humans only worship what they cannot see.” Mars has got his hopes up, because three Earthlings (soprano Helen Bailey, tenor Daniel Joy and bass Christopher Foster) are already on their way to his planet in a rocket. The opera opens with a dizzying, tumbling trio as our astronauts sing out of a dark stage, their faces lit only by the light of laptops or torches, voicing their hopes, fears, regrets and ambitions when leaving a future earth (the projected year is 2032) to see if the red planet might be ripe for colonisation. Mars, the war god, with bare torso, a tattered red cloak and simple Greek kilt, wakes from planetary sleep, spear in hand, and cheers up at the thought of being worshipped again; but Venus cruelly dashes his dreams, points out that humans have only disrespected her, and finally (with unnerving realism) castrates Mars on stage, her rage and disgust driving her to take control once and for all of the Universe.
Kate Symonds-Joy (Venus), Dominic Bowe (Mars). Photography by Claire Shovelton
Director Rebecca Meltzer brings two of the most famous depictions of Venus, the Rokeby and the Botticelli versions, onto the stage as framed paintings leaning against a large easel. In a moment of blistering stagecraft, Venus angrily slashes her Velázquez portrait, which immediately oozes blood: the goddess smears this blood all over her sharp white suit, using it as war paint on her face and Mars’ as she exhorts him to resist the advances of humans and their intellectually reductive, pathetic, cheapening assessment of the divine. The clever use of three small, bright torches often wielded in darkness by the Earthlings achieves star-like flashings, dramatic spotlighting, and even a vision of the preciousness of the Earth as they catch torchlight carefully in cupped hands. This is a work full of strange juxtapositions: space travel and classical gods, Edward Lambert’s rich Baroque-inspired score and Max Waller’s direct and simple libretto, shot through with extreme feminism. Meltzer’s clear, minimalist concept allows the narrative to build coherently, while celebrating the surreal tension created by all these competing elements.
Earthlings Christopher Foster and Daniel Joy. Photography by Claire Shovelton
“I draw breath as the apogee of beauty… but I am the worm that turns”, sings Venus, as she turns her dagger on the offending portrait, blazing with rage that she has been traduced to “a sex symbol… Venus a porn star!” Kate Symonds-Joy painted rage across her low and thrilling mezzo so that the climax of the piece, when Venus turns her knife on Mars, felt both shocking and sublime. The evils of porn culture – at one end, an insidious evil which increasingly taints everyday human relationships at their most intimate, and at the other, a callous monetisation of the grossest degradation of human dignity which actively incites and promotes violence against women, and facilitates the saddest kinds of human slavery – must and should be fought, and while castration may not be a practical solution for women to implement on the ground (however tempting that may occasionally feel), The Art of Venus reminds us that, somehow, we must castrate the monstrous attitude which allows porn culture to infest our society unchallenged, while it poisons men’s, and women’s, attitudes towards one another, often from a distressingly young age. Having cut Mars’ penis off, Venus carried it over, reverently, to her Botticelli portrait, making his redundant phallus a sacrificial offering to the power of beauty. As a feminist call to arms, The Art of Venusmay chill the stomachs of an audience with its visceral punch, but it’s undeniably timely and relevant.
Conductor Olivia Clarke presided with skill over her trio of accordion (Bartosz Glowacki), violin (Maria Fiore Mazzarini) and cello (Tom Isaac); the original score also includes a marimba, but on this night we were marimba-less, so some adjustments had been made, but the piece flowed unhestitatingly. Edward Lambert’s score felt sumptuously melodic, as well as busily fresh, with strong, intensely written passages building to moments of euphoric surprise. I walked out feeling as though my head had just been dipped in an ice-cold bucket of gin and tonic: shaken, astonished, and utterly exhilarated.