The Judgment of Paris

Arne

Information

Masque to a libretto by William Congreve

Marsh Court, Stockbridge, 18 September 2010
Music at Wotton, 6 November 2010
The Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 7 November 2010
Wigmore Hall, London, 12 February 2011

Cast

Mercury (Hermes), the messenger  of the gods Mark Chaundy
Paris, a shepherd Peter van Hulle (September and November)
John-Colyn Gyeantey (February)
Juno (Saturnia, wife of Jupiter) Joana Seara
Pallas (Athena) Serena Kay
Venus (Cytherea) Ilona Domnich
   
with the Bampton Classical Players on period instruments
Oliver Webber, Jim O’Toole, Ben Sansom violin; Emma Alter viola; Natasha Kraemer cello; Jonathan Moss double bass; Rachel Chaplin, Karen Gibbard oboe; Zoe Shevlin bassoon
   
Conductor and harpsichord Ben Bayl
Director Jeremy Gray

 

Synopsis

Synopsis and Background

The classical myth of The Judgment of Paris is found in many forms in Greek and Roman literature, and was linked with the background to the Trojan war.  The messenger god Mercury is sent by Jupiter to give a task to the shepherd Paris.  He is to present a golden apple to the most beautiful of three goddesses – Juno, Pallas and Venus.  The goddesses battle it out in this celestial beauty contest  (‘Turn to me, for I am she’) and each tries to tempt Paris.  Juno, wife of Jupiter, offers earthly power and kingship (‘Let ambition fire thy mind’, whilst  Pallas (Athena) offers wisdom and glory in war (‘The glorious voice of war calls aloud’).  Venus charms with cooing words of love (‘One only joy mankind can know’): her sensuous tactics pay off, and Paris awards her the coveted prize (‘I yield, I yield’).

Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), the Eton-educated son of a successful upholsterer-cum-funeral director is one of the most colourful figures in English music history.  His popular reputation nowadays may be based almost entirely on that promenaders’ delight , Rule, Britannia (from his 1740 ‘masque’ Alfred,  a tale of Anglo-Saxon warfare and rustic lovemaking), but in his lifetime he was the most prominent figure in English theatrical music, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.  Described as ‘thoughtless, dissipated and careless’, he was superbly self-assured in his musical writing, showing a remarkable gift for singable melody and a sure sense of dramatic pace.  With a 45 year-long career spent writing for the stage, Arne would now be much more of a household name,were it not for the fact that so much of his music has been lost with the ravages of time: hardly any of his stage works survive complete and many are in virtually unperformable fragments.

His Judgment of Paris, composed in 1742, is described as a masque – originally a form of Renaissance courtly musical theatre – but is in effect a short opera in the late Baroque style, with no spoken text.  Although there is little plot beyond the bare outline of the classical myth on which it is based, it makes for an attractive and very entertaining staged work.  Composed for 5 solo singers, the music alternates between ‘airs’ (solo numbers, some in the familiar Baroque da capo structure), recitatives (sung dialogue), and choruses.  The English text is by the great poet William Congreve, and was originally written for a famous composition competition in 1701 in which several composers participated, the prize going to John Weldon.  Perhaps in choosing the same libretto forty years later, Arne hoped to make a point about his own superior standing, although by then the original competition pieces had long been forgotten.

The first performance took place on 12 March 1742 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London with an outstanding cast, including Mrs Arne (Cecilia Young) as Venus.  The performance was mounted for Arne’s own benefit and the usual prices were increased for the occasion – in the marketing material, after noting that “Ladies are desir’d to send their servants to keep places by Four o’clock”, Arne explained that he “humbly hopes the Town will not be offended at this small advance of Prices, being at an extraordinary expence for copying all the Music, building the stage, additional instrumental performers, chorus singers and erecting an Organ”.  At a time when contemporary music quickly went out of fashion it is remarkable that Paris was still being performed as late as 1761, - complete with fireworks.   Bampton Classical Opera is delighted to perform this forgotten English masterpiece in celebration of Arne’s 300th anniversary.

Reviews

…impressive singing… superb playing… uniformly excellent
MusicWeb International, November 2010

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…impressive singing… superb playing… uniformly excellent

MusicWeb International, November 2010

In the 18th century Thomas Arne was the leading English composer - even more popular that Purcell in his time - with an impressive number of stage works to his credit. So it is a matter of regret that so few of his operas and masques have been revived for his tercentenary this year. However there is a reason for this: very few of them have survived complete, and most of them have come down to us in the form of fragments, which are virtually unperformable.

The Masque of Alfred is a case in point. The work was first performed to great acclaim at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire in 1740 before Frederick, Prince of Wales, and subsequently went through a number of different versions. While the arias are still extant, the recitatives and choruses are lost except for the final one which is still sung lustily on the Last Night of the Proms. Bampton Classical Opera, a company based in Oxfordshire which specialises in rarely performed 18th century opera (such as Salieri's Falstaff and Haydn's Le Pescatrici), performed extracts from Alfred linked by a narrative, with an ensemble of five singers and an eleven piece Baroque orchestra conducted by Benjamin Bayl.

Mark Chaundy started the action off as the shepherd Corin who is unaware that he is offering shelter to the King of England. However, the truth must surely dawn on him when Alfred (Peter van Hulle) is reunited with his wife Eltruda (Joana Seara) and son Prince Edward (Serena Kay) and they sing a joyful trio together. Russian soprano Ilona Domnich then appears in spirit form to Alfred urging him not to despair after which Prince Edward stirs the blood with Gracious Heaven in which he swears vengeance on the guilty and promises succour to the needy. The Queen prays to her guardian angels to protect Alfred in battle and suddenly all is well as all five singers regale us with a triumphant Rule Britannia.

While there was impressive singing from all participants the sequence felt “fragmented”, but after the interval came a semistaged version of The Judgment of Paris which was far more satisfying. It opened with an extended overture characterised by some superb playing by the Bampton Classical Players, whose two violins (Oliver Webber and Ben Samson) displayed impressive agility throughout the evening. Mark Chaundy burst onto the platform as the Jove's messenger to enlist the help of the “gentle swain” Paris to judge a celestial beauty contest with the reassuring words “Fear not, mortal, none can harm”. I would have liked to hear more of Mr Chaundy's fine rich voice, but unfortunately in both operas he was fated to have only one solo slot - right at the beginning – after which he disappeared into the background.

Paris (Peter van Hulle) is content with his lowly lot. “Happy am I of human race; with no god I'll change my place,” he sings. But he just can't believe his luck when the three goddesses (Juno, Athena and Venus) flaunt their charms before him so provocatively. Portuguese born Joana Seara gave a strong performance as Juno pleading her cause with great effect; while London-born Serena Kay (Athena) extolled the attractions of the military life in a barnstorming martial aria. However, I don't think I'm giving anything away by suggesting that Ilona Domnich's Venus – blond, sensuous, and with an enigmatic smile and an amazing voice – looked the most likely contender for the prize apple.

“Distracted I turn, but I cannot decide.” Paris succumbed to a whirl of conflicting emotions as each of the goddesses grew more desperate and upped her game. However, an amorous clinch next to the Holywell Music Room's pipe organ helped focus his mind and Venus was pronounced the winner. This was a jolly romp with some persuasive acting and splendid singing from the cast which often had the audience in stitches. The musical support was uniformly excellent; Benjamin Bayl proved to be an exponent of Baroque music par excellence conducting with great flair and assurance.

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Roger Jones

 

...lively heartfelt singing…
The Oxford Times, 12 November 2010

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...lively heartfelt singing…

The Oxford Times, 12 November 2010

Schumann has grabbed the lion’s share of the attention, while poor old Thomas Arne — born 300 years ago — has struggled to get a look in. Bampton Opera put that right on Friday with a double bill of two Arne masques, presented as concert versions — extracts from Alfred, composed in 1753 for the third birthday of Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, and The Judgment of Paris, composed in 1742, the same year that a fundraising campaign was launched to build the Holywell Music Room.

Much of Alfred has been lost since its composition, including the recitatives, but with the help of some clearly intoned narration from Jeremy Gray, and some lively, heartfelt singing from a splendid five-strong cast, the piece was brought to life, evoking the England of King Alfred and his liberation of his people, and ending with a rousing, unashamedly patriotic chorus that might sound familiar — it’s called Rule Britannia.

The Judgment of Paris — with a libretto by the poet William Congreve — humorously recreates the classic tale from Greek and Roman mythology that led to the Trojan War. Mercury (warmly sung by Mark Chaundy) is sent by Jupiter to the shepherd Paris (performed with great humour by Peter van Hulle), who must choose the most beautiful of three goddesses, and present his chosen one with a golden apple. Joana Seara, Serena Kay and Ilona Domnich, as Juno, Pallas and Venus respectively, drew some of the biggest laughs of the night with their antics in ‘Turn to me, for I am she’, as each tried to impress Paris, while the period instrument orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Benjamin Bayl, complemented the singers perfectly.

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Nicola Lisle

 

…commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment
Opera Today, 20 February 2011

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…commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment

Opera Today, 20 February 2011

The first performance of Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred took place at Clivedon House on the Thames near Maidenhead, in August 1740.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II, had married in 1736 but, rebellious and alienated from his parents, when his wife became pregnant, Frederick concealed the fact. At the last moment, the Princess of Wales was rushed to St James’s Palace, where no preparations had been made, and gave birth to a daughter, almost as soon as the King and Queen knew a grandchild was on the way. The little girl was known as Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, and for her third birthday, or rather one day later on 1 August 1740, her father arranged a grand entertainment in the garden of Cliveden consisting of two masques and some pantomime scenes, all performed by the best London professionals that money could buy. The entertainments were enjoyed by such a throng of society guests that they had to be repeated on the following night — when a rainstorm drove everyone indoors, and Alfred had to be finished in the Hall.

In the eighteenth century, the characters and storyline of a masque would be familiar to all with a knowledge of classical mythology. The early-eighteenth century was a ‘classical age’, in which assumptions were seldom challenged, and people believed that their way of life and artistic tastes were not a passing phase but, in the words of the great English historian, G.M. Trevelyan, “permanent habitations, the final outcome of reason and experience. Such an age does not aspire to progress though it may in fact be progressing, it regards itself not as setting out but as having arrived …And therefore the men of this ‘classical’ age looked backed with a sense of kinship to the far-off ancient world. The upper class regarded the Greeks and Romans as honorary Englishmen, their precursors in liberty and culture.”*

Thus, Alfred, ostensibly set in the distant ninth century and telling the story of maurading, godless Danes who met their match in Alfred, a scholarly and benevolent ruler, had significant contemporary relevance, obvious no doubt to all of Frederick’s guests. For, just as the legendary King Alfred sought refuge in a country refuge, from whence he launched the freeing of his nation, so Frederick resided in his rural retreat, estranged from his father, waiting for the day when his values of liberty and honour would prevail and ‘free’ his nation.

At the time of Alfred’s composition, inventions in the masque form were acceptable if they were fairly mild in character; sometimes they may have been barely intentional, and thus Arne, though he transformed English opera in the 1740s-60s, may scarcely have been conscious of his originality, being more concerned to ‘recapture the past’ than to forge new paths into the future.
In fact, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778) was the most important figure in the world of English theatre music in the middle part of the eighteenth century, fighting vehemently for the cause of native creativity at a time when the fashion for foreign culture prevailed. With a brilliant gift for melody, Arne was able to turn his hand to the whole range of theatre music, from incidental music and comic 'afterpieces', to complex masques and opera seria on the scale of those by his great rival, Handel.

Alfred has the innovation of both spoken dialogue and a historical plot. At this time, James Thomas, the author of The Seasons, was receiving an allowance from Frederick — much needed for only shortly before he had been languishing in a debtors’ prison! Anxious to raise the literary level of the masque, Arne found in Thomas a poet of merit. Arne may well have been looking back to the Purcellian masque with his deployment of spoken dialogue but at the same time, it may also have conveniently excused him from the obligation to write ‘dramatic music’, in recognition that his compositional gifts were primarily lyrical. In this performance by Bampton Classical Opera, the text was narrated crisply by Bampton director Jeremy Gray; the transitions between spoken and sung text were swift and wholly convincing, effectively binding the individual numbers into a fluent narrative.

Originally Alfred and his wife, Eltruda, were non-singing parts; the airs were sung by the two shepherds, Corin and his wife Emma, and by the Spirit, sung originally by Mrs Arne — aka Cecilia Young, one of the foremost sopranos of the age. Presented in a bewildering number of versions in its day, textually Alfred is one of the most confused of all eighteenth-century ‘operas’. Arne continued to revise and reshape it, composing up to seventy numbers in all. Many of the revisions were pragmatic: initially scored with great lavishness, it was subsequently impossible to accommodate the work in any of the London playhouses, and therefore economising modification was necessary. None of the music was published for more than a decade after the first performance, and then only in much altered form. Bampton Classical Opera first tackled the work in 1998, giving what may have been the first fully-staged performance since the eighteenth century. On this occasion, they presented excerpts from the 1753 version, in which the dialogue was reduced to a minimum.

Alfred is a stirring tale of Anglo-Saxon warfare and rustic love, complete with ‘an offstage British victory of overwhelming proportions’. The music may be unfamiliar, but it was pleasing to see several Bampton ‘regulars’ return for this performance. The dramatic focus and musical accuracy of Corin’s opening solo air, ‘Though to a desert Isle confin’d’, sung with confident assurance by Mark Chaundy, flowed naturally to the Trio ‘Let not those who love, complain’, in which the voices of Joana Seara, Serena Kay and John-Colyn Gyeanty blended perfectly with the instrumental support. Having recently performed the Count in Bampton’s 2010 The Marriage of Figaro by Marcos Portugal, Gyeanty employed his flexibile, warm tenor with admirable control in the eponymous hero’s beautiful air, ‘From the Dawn of early Morning’, displaying an array of colours and dispatching the rapid scalic runs with aplomb. Making effective use of pianissimo, he shaped the phrases gracefully and projected the words clearly. As Edward (performed in 1753 by the renowned castrato, Guadagni), Kay brought dramatic energy to her air, ‘Vengeance, O come, inspire me!’, while Seara delivered Eltruda’s ‘Gracious Heav’n, O hear me!’ with precision and finesse. Ilona Domnich was a bright, clear shepherdess, Emma, and also sang the Spirit’s air with directness and assurance, adeptly capturing the mood of the situation.

‘Rule Britannia’ — a ‘Grand Ode in Honour of Great Britain’ — ends the work. Dynamic instrumental playing from the Bampton Classical Players accompanied King Alfred’s and Queen Eltruda’s prayer that our shores be protected from foreign invasion, a prayer which, for all its modern ‘vainglory’, expresses not unreasonable sentiments for a constantly invaded island in the ninth century, and had topical relevance for 1740. Brilliantly scored for oboes, bassoons, trumpets, drums and strings, it was an overnight sensation on its first performance, and was soon sung everywhere; in 1742 the full score was published as an appendix to Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, a work which was undoubtedly influenced by Sammartini’s Judgement of Paris also given at Cliveden in the summer of 1740.

At the time it was felt that ‘masque’ was not the appropriate category for Alfred, and it was later advertised as a serenata, an opera, and even an oratorio. Similarly, while Arne’s The Judgement of Paris — an irreverent account of the famous mythological beauty contest which led to the Trojan War — was also described as a masque when first performed at Drury Lane on 12 March 1742, there is no spoken dialogue and it is effectively a one-act opera for five soloists and chorus.

Bampton Classical Opera certainly made a strong case for its dramatic as well as musical merits. Conductor Benjamin Bayl deftly captured the character of the piece, inspiring vigorous playing from the period instrumental orchestra and drawing out the distinctive woodwind colourings in particular numbers. Tempi were well chosen and the recitatives sustained forward momentum.
Gyeanty’s even legato and sensitivity to the text were again in evidence in Paris’s air, ‘I faint, I fall’, as he used changes of pace and rich ornamentation to convey drama and emotion. Mark Chaundy’s light voice and superb breath control aptly conveyed the swift airiness of Mercury in ‘Fear not, mortal, none shall harm thee’; and the two men enjoyed the joyful jauntiness of their duet, ‘Happy thou of human race’.
Arne’s music for the three goddesses is nicely differentiated. Serena Kay presented a powerful, athletic impression of Pallas in ‘O what joys does conquest yield’, an elaborate, full-scale Italianate da capo aria, which also drew fine playing from the oboes, trumpets and drums. In contrast, Joana Seara emphasised the steadfastness of Juno in a simple strophic air, ‘Let ambition fire the mind’. In Venus’s ‘Nature framed thee sure for Loving’, Ilona Domnich floated the high notes sweetly, while the two violins enjoyed their dialogue and echo effects. Venus’s first air, ‘Hither turn thee gentle swain’, includes a delightful cello obbligato, here beautifully played by Natasha Kraemer. It leads to an amusing ‘rivalry trio’ for the three goddesses; Kay, Seara and Domnich clearly relished the gentle humour as Pallas and Juno take turns to ironically adapt the first line of Venus’s preceding air.

This may have been a concert performance, but the singers were uniformly effective in conveying not just character but dramatic relationships and momentum. Indeed, the stage directions, reproduced in the programme, describe the moment when Paris sees the three goddesses, who then descend briskly from the sky on mechanical contraptions — a useful reminder of the theatrical origins of the work.
Once again, Bampton Classical Opera not only brought justly deserving but little known repertoire to a highly appreciative audience’s attention, but performed it with commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment. In so doing, the company made a strong and convincing case for both the musical and the dramatic potential of these early English ‘operas’.

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Claire Seymour

 

…pleasingly sung, neatly directed…
The Times 15 February 2011

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…pleasingly sung, neatly directed…

The Times 15 February 2011

More English stage music, of a slightly later date, at the Wigmore Hall, where Bampton Opera presented Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris preceded by extracts from his masque Alfred (including a rousing ditty called Rule, Britannia, which might just catch on). A golden apple and a few flirtatious glances aside, this was a concert performance but a pleasingly sung one, neatly directed from the harpsichord by Benjamin Bayl, which revelled in Arne’s dapper tunes, busy violin descants and sizzling coloratura. A good incentive to sample Bampton Opera in its Oxfordshire home this summer.

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Richard Morrison

 

Production Photos