Sunday 8 April 2018

Competitive edge: Thomas Arne's 'The Judgement of Paris' and arias from Handel's 'Semele'

Angelica Kauffman, The Judgement of Paris c. 1770-1797
Angelica Kauffman, The Judgement of Paris c. 1770-1797
Arne The Judgement of Paris, Handel Semele (excerpts); Soraya Mafi, Gillian Ramm, Susanna Fairburn, Ed Lyon, Anthony Gregory, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews; the London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 Apr 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two settings of Congreve from 1740s London, Arne's little known The Judgement of Paris and Handel's well known Semele

The restoration playwright  William Congreve's opera librettos, The Judgement of Paris and Semele, failed to spark an English opera tradition but they would have an intriguing after life. The Judgement of Paris was written for the famous competition in 1701-1703 when John Weldon, Daniel Purcell, Gottfried Finger and John Eccles each set the libretto and eventually John Weldon's setting won (though Eccles' was expected to). Eccles went on to write Semele to Congreve's words, but this fine work failed to be performed and English opera died a death, with Italian opera being taken up by the English nobility.

Both Congreve librettos would be set by subsequent generations, whilst Handel's Semele (using Congreve) is the best known, his younger contemporary Thomas Arne set The Judgement of Paris. Those with long memories may remember Anthony Rooley and the Consorte of Musicke performing the three surviving operas from 1701-1703 (Finger's setting has been lost) at the BBC Proms with the audience voting (this time Eccles won), and in 1710 Bampton Classical Opera performed Thomas Arne's setting [read a review on Bachtrack]. And in 2004 Anthony Rooley recorded Eccles Semele with Florida State University and the disc is well worth seeking out for those interested in the history of English Opera.

As part of the London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square, The Brook Street Band, conductor John Andrews, presented a performance of Thomas Arne's 1742 setting of The Judgement of Paris with Ed Lyon as Paris, Soraya Mafi as Venus, Anthony Gregory as Mercury, Gillian Ramm as Juno and Susanna Fairbairn as Pallas. The evening was completed by a selection of arias from Handel's Semele, with the audience members voting at the beginning of the evening for their favourite arias and the top six being performed by the soloists. An intriguing link to the original competition and a novel way of selection excerpts.

Arne's and Handel's settings of Congreve have a number of tantalising links. In the late 1730s and early 1740s Handel was coming to the end of his engagement with Italian opera. His own performances of Italian opera in London had been challenged by the success of such English ballad operas as Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley (1737), and he had also had a stroke that year. His opera Deidamia (1741) would be his last Italian opera in London. In 1742 he and his company were invited to Dublin where Messiah was premiered and the great success rather buoyed the composer.

Whilst Handel was away, Thomas Arne and his company mounted a double bill of Handel's Alexander's Feast and Arne's new setting of The Judgement of Paris, amongst the cast was the tenor John Beard who was renowned for his Handel roles but who did not accompany Handel to Dublin. It is inconceivable that Handel did not know about these performances, and in fact, Arne was in Dublin too for benefit performances towards the end of Handel's period there. In his article in the programme book John Andrews suggests that Handel my have hit upon Congreve as a possible, literate solution to the English opera problem. The result was Semele, which with its risque nature and hints of satire on the relationship between King George II and his mistress, the Countess of Yarmouth, did not go down well. The result was that English opera remained on the sidelines, and Handel developed the oratorio.

Arne's setting of The Judgement of Paris is elegant and stylish, whilst there are hints of his referring to the older composer's style (Arne was 25 years younger than Handel), there were plenty of galant moments too looking forward to the music of composers like Johann Christoph Bach (whose operas in London would be popular and would have a big influence on Mozart).

The plot is quite simple; after a quite traditional overture, where the Brook Street Band's characterful oboes came to the fore, Paris (Ed Lyon) is discovered seated under a tree. Mercury (Anthony Gregory) appears and tells him he must judge the three goddesses for beauty. Paris is dazzled and announces he needs to see each one individually and unclothed  'And since a gay Robe an ill shape may disguise, When each is undrest, I'le judge of the best, For tis not a face that must carry the Prize'. Each then goddess sings an aria to Paris, first Juno (Gillian Ramm), then Pallas (Susanna Fairbairn) and finally Venus (Soraya Mafi) with Venus winning, and a final chorus.

Arne gives each character a nice balance of arias, and the soloists were an impressive and well differentiated bunch, each with an individual tone to their voice which is rather essential in an opera which uses three sopranos and two tenors!. Ed Lyon proved an heroic Paris, with a nice sense of humour and twinkle in his eye, with Anthony Gregory a more serious Mercury with a fine lyric voice with just the right edge to it. Gillian Ramm was richly characterful as the rather superior Juno, with Susanna Fairbairn as a strong Pallas whose aria included martial trumpets. But it was Soraya Mafi's Venus with her wonderfully languishing performance of Venus's graceful aria who carried the day.

Arne is no Handel, and allowing for changes in style the opera rather lacked Handel's secure dramatic pacing. A number of arias were created from lines of recitative where the aria seemed not to drive the plot forward. The arias themselves varied between da capo and quasi strophic, and frankly there were too many whose charms began to pall owing to the significant length of the aria. This was a charming piece, but to make a regular performance it would need some discreet cutting, though I admire John Andrews and The Brook Street Band's fidelity to the music in giving us it complete.

The performers, whilst giving us a concert performance, brought out the character of the piece and individual performances were finely characterised with plenty of eye flashing and preening between the three goddesses, and that salacious twinkle in Ed Lyon's eye.

After the interval we heard the results of the competition for favourite arias from Semele, with John Andrews as a delightful compere. The programme was neatly arranged, with Gillian Ramm singing 'Endless pleasure', Anthony Gregory singing 'Come to my arms', Susanna Fairbairn singing 'O Sleep', Ed Lyon singing 'I must with speed amuse her' and Soraya Mafi singing 'Myself I shall adore'. Then the top voted aria, 'Where e'er you walk' was sung by both Ed Lyon and Anthony Gregory, alternim, with the final stanza as an ensemble for both tenors with the three sopranos providing backing. A neat and intriguing solution.

Let loose into more familiar territory, with perhaps the added stimulus of not quite knowing which movements would be chosen, the performances of arias from Semele had a great deal of dramatic flair. Most singers sang from memory, and all gave a distinctly personal approach to the the music so we had three very different Semeles and two distinct Jupiters. All in all, a delightful evening.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Labour of love: a new musical direction at Finchcocks - interview
  • Spellbinding: Anna Netrebko and Željko Lucic in Verdi's Macbeth - Royal Opera House Live Cinema (★★★★) - opera review
  • From wronged women to pastoral delight: Handel's Italian cantatas at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Mr Handel's Vauxhall Pleasures at the London Handel Festival (★★★★½) - concert review
  • This brand-new production of Verdi’s Falstaff proves how strong the subject-matter is and how highly entertaining the opera (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Planet Hugill’s roving music correspondent, Tony Cooper, reports on Berlin’s Festtage (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity, Energy and Poise: Bach's St John Passion at the Holy Week Festival (★★★★½)   - concert review
  • Atmosphere at the expense of text: Wednesday at St John's Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • Challenging the traditional concert format: I chat to pianist Alexandra Dariescu about Nutcrackers, creative entrepreneurs and women composers  - interview
  • A very humane comedy: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Jolly Good Show! - Charles Court Opera's The Mikado (★★★★)  - opera review
  • The Guardian Angel: voices and violin in concert (★★★★) - concert review
  • Fire and water: Ji Liu  (★★★) - CD review
  • En Francais: Verdi's original Don Carlos in Lyon (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Electronic opera: Roger Doyle's Heresy (★★★) - CD review
  • Moving, thoughtful, thought-provoking - Christoph Prégardien, Julia Kleiter and Julius Drake at Temple Song (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Exploring her heritage: Rebeca Omordia introduces the Nigerian art music which features on her new CD - Interview
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