Wednesday 22 July 2009

The nearly man of English opera

John Eccles is one of the great might-have-beens of English musical history. Born in a musical family, he worked with Henry Purcell on a number of his stage works at the Drury Lane and Dorset Garden theatres. When, in 1695, a group of actors broke away and formed their own company at the Lincolns Inn Theatre, Eccles went with them. This split caused a difference of musical style between the two groups. Drury Lane continued to use professional singers in their productions and stuck to the lavish semi-opera format. Whereas at Lincoln's Inn Fields the emphasis was more on plays with music and it was the actors themselves who sang. This means that Eccles music for them could be less elaborate, but he developed a notably flexible style which related to the rhythms of English speech.

In spring 1701 Eccles took part in a competition organised by Lord Halifax whereby four composers wrote through-composed settings of a libretto by Congreve, The Judgement of Paris. After a series of performances, the operas were judged. In the cast of Eccles opera was Ann Bracegirdle, one of the foremost singing actresses of the day. But John Weldon's setting came first, with Eccles second. Eccles opera has now been recorded by Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company and it is a notable success. In fact, it is difficult to understand why the opera has been ignored. In the late 1980's, Antony Rooley and the Consort of Music presented the 3 surviving settings of The Judgement of Paris at the Proms and then had their own competition. This time Eccles did win.

The 1701 competition didn't lead to very much, unfortunately. In 1704 Eccles provided music for The British Enchanters which was to prove the last real semi-opera. In 1707 Eccles did set Congreve's masterly libretto Semele (which was later adapted for Handel), with the intention of presenting Ann Bracegirdle in the title role. Congreve's libretto was probably produced with the intention of the opening of a new theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1705, but as Eccles did not deliver until 1707 they seem to have missed the boat. The few other English operas given in London were noticeably weaker than Eccles opera and the first Italian singers started to be presented and Italian opera gained a firm footing.

If you are interested in hearing this earlier version of Semele then there is a recording on Regis Records from the University of Florida, directed by Antony Rooley. Their account of the work is entirely creditably and until one of our early music groups takes up the works, Florida's account enables us to find out a little more about this nearly ran

The period 1701 to 1707 is one of those fascinating crux points. Eccles seems to be one of the few composers with the dramatic talents to produce viable English operas and you can't help feeling that if he and Congreve had produced Semele just that bit earlier, there might have been an English opera tradition to run alongside the Italian.

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