Saturday 30 January 2021

Reviving early English opera, staging Baroque opera: I chat to conductor Julian Perkins about his recording of John Eccles' Semele and staging Handel's Tamerlano

John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, November 2019
John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, November 2019

John Eccles' opera Semele with its libretto by William Congreve is a work that I have long known about and been fascinated by. Written in the early 18th century, just before Handel arrived in London, it is probably the best English opera after Purcell's Dido and Aeneas yet it has virtually disappeared from view. It was, therefore, welcome news that the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) was collaborating with the Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) to perform and record the work with a strong cast, directed by Julian Perkins [see my review of Semele]. Julian is the artistic director of CHOC and founder of the group Sounds Baroque, so I was delighted to be able to chat to him about Semele, English opera, staging Baroque opera and much else besides.

John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music
The English composer John Eccles was highly active in writing music for the London theatre in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the period after Purcell died (1695) and before Handel arrived (1710). Eccles came second in the famous competition to set Congreve's libretto The Judgement of Paris, [see my article on early English opera] and Congreve went on to write his libretto for Semele which Eccles set in 1706. It was probably intended for John Vanbrugh's new Queen's Theatre (which opened in 1705), with the famous actress Anne Bracegirdle as Semele. But the performance never happened. Eccles seems to have retired, never wrote another opera and spent his time fishing at his house in Kingston upon Thames and simply wrote the occasional court ode. He would be the only Master of the King's/Queen's Music to serve four monarchs (King William III, Queen Anne, King George I and King George II). 

History has not been kind to Eccles' Semele. Handel would set an adaptation of Congreve's libretto in the 1740s and this, whilst a very different work, is an accepted masterpiece. Eccles' Semele had to wait until 2004 before its first recording when Anthony Rooley directed it with young singers from Florida State University Opera. [still available from Amazon]. The work has never been staged by a major British opera company.

My first question to Julian was why hasn't Eccles' Semele become better known. The reasons are, he thinks, quite complex. For a start, performing it is quite a logistical challenge as it needs quite a few singers (Julian's recording uses 13 soloists). Also, the fact the opera was never performed in Eccles' lifetime rather counts against it. We tend to be accepting of the hagiography which moves English music from Purcell to Handel, leaving Eccles by the wayside. There is also the curse of the box office, Handel's Semele is sexy and sells, why add another version. 

But Julian points out that Eccles' Semele exists in a different aesthetic world to Handel's and it is unfair to make comparisons, we should promote both of them. Just as in his stage works Purcell fused the English style with French opera, Eccles in Semele is fusing English style with Italian opera. 

Julian's quotes the late Professor Donald McKenzie, William Congreve's modern editor, on Semele. In setting the libretto, 'Handel made it a concert and lightened it into comedy', whereas 'Eccles deepened it, and in writing intimately at every point to its dramatic structure, set it musically within a world where divine malignancy, and the power to enforce it, inevitably darken all human hopes of happiness'.

Julian Perkins playing the harpsichord at the National Gallery's Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure - 2013
Julian Perkins playing the harpsichord at the National Gallery's Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure - 2013
With the revival of any forgotten work there is always the nagging question, has it been forgotten for a reason?

But Julian responds with a resounding no, though having recently performed and recorded it he admits that he has 'lost all sense of perspective'! Julian admires Handel's Semele and comments that Semele's solo in that work 'Myself I shall adore' is theatrical viagra. But in Eccles' opera, the setting of the same text in more nuanced, Semele here is a young girl who does not yet know what she is doing. It is a good piece, but it is less showy than Handel's aria. Ultimately Eccles' opera is a very human drama, it shows Jupiter fall in love with Semele. Julian also comments that Congreve's original libretto for Semele (that set by Handel was considerably adjusted for him) is one of the best English librettos, and Julian is sure that Congreve would not have written it if he hadn't been sure of Eccles' ability to match text with music. Additionally, the role of Semele was to have been sung by the actress and singer Anne Bracegirdle, who was evidently a terrific performer.

The reasons why the opera was not performed are vague, some authorities suggest that the theatre's season was not doing well, others that previous English operas had not gone down well whilst others point to changes in the licensing of London theatres. But Julian wonders whether the work's strength might have been its downfall and the nascent Italian opera establishment in London worked against it. 

Julian has experienced performing in Eccles' Semele before. He played continuo in Peter Holman's concert performance of the work as part of The Suffolk Villages Festival. And Holman (the founder of the Parley of Instruments and an expert on English music of the period) played continuo in Julian's performances with AAM last year.

Julian Perkins (Photo Benjamin Harte)
Julian Perkins (Photo Benjamin Harte)
There have not been many performances of the work, the English premiere was in 1964 when it was performed at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. This itself must have been something of a challenge, as the Musica Britannica edition of the score did not come out until 2000, so quite what editions would have been available in 1964 is unclear.

Julian agrees that getting to stage the work would be a dream. Though unlikely in a modern performance, if it had been staged in 1706 the staging would have included spectacular effects such as the gods descending in chariots from the flies. With its broad cast, Julian suggests that it would be good for a music college.  AAM's recording has, he feels, done the work proud and the disc comes with a substantial, 200-page book providing background to the work.

Eccles' music for the opera is not without complexity. He was a violinist and much of the violin writing is virtuosic,  with intricate solo violin writing. Perhaps he wrote it intending to lead the orchestra himself. The recitatives are very detailed with lots of nuances in the rhythms which remind Julian of the way Monteverdi writes in his operas. The result is that it is tricky making the recitatives feel natural whilst at the same time being accurate. There is no doubt of Italian influence here, and Eccles may have known of Monteverdi's music. There is a lot that we don't know about him, and there had undoubtedly been a large influx of Italian musicians into London (London was becoming known as a place where musicians could make money). So there is something of a mystery to it, and all we can do is speculate.

Julian is also involved in Baroque opera in other ways. He is the artistic director of Cambridge Handel Opera Company, a group founded in 2016 as a successor to the Cambridge Handel Opera Group which staged Handel operas between 1985 and 2013. CHOC staged its first opera, Handel's Rodelinda in 2018 and was originally planning Handel's Tamerlano in 2020.

When Julian and I spoke (in December  2020), Tamerlano was being planned for April 2021, directed by Dionysios Kyropoulos who is an expert in Baroque gesture. [I interviewed Dionysios back in 2013, and even then he made it clear that using Baroque gesture did not mean a staging swathed in fustian, see my interview]. But since the interview, CHOC has reluctantly decided to postpone Tamerlano until April 2022, though there will be three on-line discussions (23 February, 30 March, 27 April 2021) focussed on key aspects of preparing a performance [further details from the CHOC website].

In performance Julian is aiming for a natural fusion of pit and stage, and certainly wants to avoid the sense of giving the audience history lesson. He feels that it is important to trust Handel and his librettist. Julian quotes a friend who, taking part in a production of a Baroque opera commented that he did not understand why he had to make his entry on a motorbike. But Julian hastens to add that some modern productions do work, he saw a powerful production of Handel's Semele which used the story of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky! What Julian wants is a synergy between all the elements in the operas. So they will be incorporating the language of Baroque gesture into the production, but with theatricality, creativity and respect for the music.

Julian points out that we rarely, if ever, see Handel operas performed with the number of performers on stage that Handel used. Quite frequently, though using a limited singing cast, there would be a significant number of people on stage, the operas frequently depict characters who live their lives in public.

Handel: Rodelinda - Julian Perkins, Cambridge Handel Opera Company, 2018
Handel: Rodelinda - Julian Perkins, Cambridge Handel Opera Company, 2018

itself presents challenges. It is a long opera, and CHOC's performances need to bear in mind the times of the last trains to London. The work has a complicated source history. Not just Handel's own adjustments to the score, but the fact that after starting work on the music he was shown another version of the libretto and made radical revisions (including adding Bajazet's on-stage death scene). Julian is aware that they need to tell a story, but they will be cutting arias and massaging the recitatives. Though cutting arias, they will be keeping Handel's careful hierarchy of which character gets more arias.

Handel himself cut Asteria's wonderful final aria 'Padre amato' because it held things up dramatically after Bajazet's death scene. But CHOC will be making some amends because there are plans for a study afternoon in which some of the cut music will be performed, and they will go into the music in some depth 

This Summer I reviewed another disc that Julian was involved in, Carl Maria von Weber's complete works for keyboard duet [see my review]. In fact, this was something of a family affair as the other pianist was Julian's wife, Emma Abbate. And he has also recorded a disc of Schubert's violin sonatas with violinist Peter Sheppard-Skaerved. Whilst Julian regards himself primarily as a Baroque specialist he likes to be versatile and he performs music if it speaks to him, feeling it keeps him fresh and creative. He enjoys performing Romantic music which comes out of the classical tradition, Weber's music very much comes out of the classical tradition (and there is the family connection in that Mozart's father-in-law and Weber's father were half-brothers). So he has performed music by Peter Maxwell Davies (on two clavichords with Terence Charlston) and has performed music by Stephen Dodgson. In fact, in January 2021 Julian will have two very different operatic sets released. In addition to Eccles' Semele, his recording of Stephen Dodgson's chamber opera Margaret Catchpole is being issued on Naxos.

Handel: Rodelinda - Cambridge Handel Opera Company, 2018
Handel: Rodelinda - Cambridge Handel Opera Company, 2018

Julian founded his group Sounds Baroque in 2005. The group's typical line up is one or two solo singers plus period strings, but it expands for workshops and bigger projects. Their programmes, with a mix of cantatas and instrumental pieces, are often inspired by the conversazione presented by the Arcadian Academy in Rome (with which Handel was involved during his Roman stay), creating a sense of chamber music with singers and an ensemble of soloists.

At school, he plunged in and studied lots of instruments, including violin, organ, singing and recorder, and it was for playing this latter that he was known at school. He got drawn into Baroque music partly because of playing the recorder, partly because his keyboard technique seemed more suited to this style of music rather than fistfuls of notes in Rachmaninov, and as a choral scholar at university, his light baritone with a bass extension saw him being useful performing Bach cantatas. All this led to a professional life in Baroque music, initially playing keyboard including continuo for people like Trevor Pinnock, whilst his move into conducting came about owing to his understanding of the voice.

Looking ahead, he confesses to finding next year terrifying, though he is trying to stay positive. Shortly after we spoke, he had a performance of Manuel de Falla's opera Master Peter's Puppet Show with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. But further ahead, whilst he has plans and ideas, there is no certainty that they are happening. He is trying to think of the time as some sort of sabbatical, and concentrating on recording. He has a new disc of harpsichord music coming out, as well as a disc of piano duets with Emma Abbate performing music by Stephen Dodgson (who was a family friend), Constant Lambert and Lennox Berkeley.

John Eccles: Semele - Richard Burkhard, Helen Charlston, Héloïse Bernard, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Christopher Foster, Jolyon Loy, Jonathan Brown, Anna Dennis, Aoife Miskelly, William Wallace, Graeme Broadbent, Rory Carver, James Rhoads, Academy of Ancient Music, Julian Perkins - AAM, available from Amazon.

Stephen Dodgson: Margaret Catchpole - Kate Howden, William Wallace, Nicholas Morris, Alistair Ollerenshaw, Richard Edgar-Wilson, Diana Moore, Peter Willcock, Matthew Brook, Julia Sporsén, Jon Stainsby, Robyn Allegra Parton, Michael Bundy, Leonora Dawson-Bowling, Jonathan Hanley, Mark Saberton, Perpetuo, Julian Perkins - NAXOS, available from Amazon


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Elsewhere on this blog
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