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John ECCLES (c1668 - 1735): The Judgment of Paris

Claire Bootha (Pallas), Lucy Croweb (Venus), soprano; Susan Bickleyc (Juno), mezzosoprano; Benjamin Hulett (Paris), tenord; Roderick Williams (Mercury), baritonee
Early Opera Company
Dir: Christian Curnyn

rec: July 22 - 23, 2008, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Chandos - CHAN 0759 ( 2009) (62'14")

I burn, I burn, my brain consumes to ashes, songc; Love's but the frailty of the mind, songa; Restless in thought disturb'd in mind, songb; The Judgment of Paris, or the Prize Music, a masqueabcde

[bc in songs] Emilia Benjamin, viola da gamba; Richard Sweeney, archlute, guitar; Christian Curnyn, harpsichord

At the end of the 17th century Italy and France could look back at a respectable opera tradition. England, on the other hand, had nothing of this kind. The music for the theatre was mostly a mixture of spoken text and music, with two casts, one of actors and one of singers. The only true operas were Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and Venus and Adonis by John Blow. Both pieces were not intended for the public theatre but rather for private performance, and as a consequence they didn't create an English opera.

In March 1700 a musical competition was announced. Its aim was the development of an all-sung English opera. To that end composers were invited to write an opera on the same libretto: The Judgment of Paris, written by William Congreve (1670-1729), a famous playwright and poet. Four composers accepted the challenge: Daniel Purcell, Henry's younger brother, John Wheldon, John Eccles, and the German-born Godfrey Finger. Wheldon won the competition, Eccles came second.

John Eccles was born in London as the son of a musician. The first sign of his activities as a composer was the publication of a collection of songs in 1691. In 1693 he started to compose for the United Companies at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Success came fast, and he soon developed into one of the most popular composers for the theatre. In 1695 a new company was founded at Lincoln's Inn Field. Eccles became its musical director.

The story of The Judgment of Paris is simple. "The shepherd Paris is told by Mercury that he must judge the goddesses Venus, Pallas and Juno to decide which of them is the most beautiful; after deliberating over their charms and considering their various blandishments and bribes, he chooses Venus, signalling his choice by the presentation of a golden apple" (booklet).

As one may expect this is not exactly the material dramatic operas are made of. And Eccles' setting of this libretto is certainly far away from the Italian opera as it was introduced about a decade later by Handel. It is of a more pastoral character, although the three goddesses are competing which each other. They sing their own arias and once they sing together, but there is nothing like a heated debate about who is the most beautiful.
In fact, this opera isn't that much different from the so-called semi-opera of the 17th century. And it doesn't surprise that this competition didn't result in the creation of an English opera tradition as well.

As this is no Italian opera it shouldn't be performed like one, and that Christian Curnyn and his ensemble have well understood. But that is no excuse for bringing a bland performance, and that is what this interpretation is, I'm afraid. The singing of all soloists and the choir is very good, and the orchestra is playing well. The first 10 minutes or so, with the 'symphony' and then the entry of Minerva asking Paris to judge the beauty of the three goddesses is good enough. Both Roderick Williams and Benjamin Hulett sing their parts well. Then the three goddesses sing one after the other, and there is enough difference in their performances to tell the three characters apart. But then they sing together, and the three soloists sing as if they don't really care who is going to win.

Benjamin Hulett then sings the aria 'Distracted I turn' which is one of the best parts of the performance. In the next arias the three goddesses are accompanied by various instruments: Pallas with trumpets and Venus with recorders. It is the participation of the instruments which is the most interesting aspect of this part of the opera, but the singing is not very exciting. Paris then gives the prize to Venus; his aria 'I yield, I yield' is surprisingly bland, and short in expression. The opera concludes with a chorus.

In addition three so-called mad songs are performed. The mad song was a popular genre at the time, which is defined in the booklet as a song "in which a female character gives voice to the mental distraction caused by a love unrequited or cruelly terminated". The three female singers have nice voices, but not powerful enough and they seem to lack the theatrical instinct one needs to sing these songs properly. Susan Bickley does best in I burn, I burn, but Lucy Crowe misses the strength in her lower register to give a really good performance of Restless in thought. Years ago Catherine Bott recorded a number of mad songs, and she did that much better.

To sum up: this disc contains beautiful music which is certainly worth performing, but I am disappointed by the interpretation by the Early Opera Company. Like I said, The Judgment of Paris is no dramatic opera in the Italian manner, but I believe more can be made of it than the Early Opera Company does, and certainly the mad songs deserve a more theatrical performance than we get here.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Early Opera Company


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