Thursday 20 June 2019

Displaying their charms: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris receives its first recording

Thomas Arne: The Judgement of Paris - Dutton
Thomas Arne The Judgement of Paris; Mary Bevan, Susanna Fairbairn, Gillian Ramm, Ed Lyon, Anthony Gregory, the Brook Street Band, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Arne's charming masque on disc finally in an engaging performance

Thomas Arne's operas didn't have much luck with posterity, both Artaxerxes and The Judgement of Paris both had important material destroyed in the Covent Garden fire so that the operas languished until reconstructed. Artaxerxes was performed and recorded by Classical Opera in 2009 in a version cleverly stitched together by Ian Page and David Druce. Thankfully much of The Judgement of Paris was published, and we were able to experience its charms at the London Handel Festival last year when John Andrews conducted the Brook Street Band [see my review]. Now we have their recording of the work, with a slightly different line up of soloists.

Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris is on Dutton Epoch, John Andrews conducts the Brook Street Band, with Mary Bevan as Venus, Susanna Fairbairn as Pallas, Gillian Ramm as Juno, Ed Lyon as Paris and Anthony Gregory as Mercury.

The work uses a libretto which playwright William Congreve wrote for the competition in 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.

There are intriguing links between Arne's The Judgement of Paris and Handel's Semele. John Andrews' programme note at the London Handel Festival concert last year explained how whilst Handel was away in Dublin in 1741 performing Messiah, 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. John Andrews suggested 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.

The plot of The Judgement of Paris is not complex and Lewis Foreman in his CD booklet note links it to the English masque tradition (Arne had a big hit in 1738 with his setting of Milton's masque Comus). 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 (Mary Bevan) with Venus winning, and a final chorus.

The result is charming rather than dramatic, and the piece some times hangs fire somewhat though Arne's level of invention is high. The strophic arias for Juno and Venus for instance could do with fewer verses perhaps.The singers are nicely differentiated, an important factor in a cast with two tenors and three sopranos! Ed Lyon proves an heroic Paris, with a nice twinkle in his eye, with Anthony Gregory a more serious Mercury with a fine lyric voice with just the right edge to it.

We first experience the three goddesses in a lively Da Capo trio, before each gets to display her musical wares. Gillian Ramm is richly characterful as the rather superior Juno, her aria is rather stately but Ramm gives it a nice swagger. Susanna Fairbairn is a strong Pallas whose aria includes martial trumpets, whilst her vibrato brings a softer, feminine edge to her portrayal too. Mary Bevan's Venus wins the day with her delightfully languishing performance. She actually gets two arias, the first delightfully seductive with  Bevan bringing a light touch to the busy passagework.

Apart from the final chorus, the music for the choruses is lost and was reconstructed by Ian Spink as part of his edition. Here the soloists, joined by bass Andrew Mahon, sing the choruses.

I felt that there were moments when the singers seemed to have been recorded a little too close for comfort, you sense their vibratos rather more than is ideal, and passagework can sometimes be a bit smudged. But there is a sense of delight and enjoyment in this performance, you feel that the singers and instrumentalists enjoying themselves, and this helps immeasurably.

The Brook Street Band, expanded beyond the group's usual chamber proportions to 18, play Arne's music with style. It is music which looks both back and forward, we can hear Arne's debt to Handel whilst being aware of the lighter, more lyrical nature of Arne's style with its galant moments which look forward to composers like JC Bach. Inevitably, perhaps, the work has a slightly old-fashioned air setting a libretto which was 30 years old and well away from current styles, but this might have been intentional.

Thanks to the vicissitudes of history, Arne is a somewhat neglected figure with much of his output lost or fragmentary and needing reconstruction. This lovely recording, the first of the work, demonstrates that in the right circumstances Arne's charms work wonderfully.

Thomas Arne (1710-1778) - The Judgement of Paris
Venus - Mary Bevan
Pallas - Susanna Fairbairn
Juno - Gillian Ramm
Paris - Ed Lyon
Mercury - Anthony Gregory
Andrew Mahon (bass)
The Brook Street Band
John Andrews (conductor)
Recorded at St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, 4-5 July 2018

Available from Amazon.

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