Gilbert and Sullivan,
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rice and Lloyd-Webber
... Congreve and Eccles. PARDON ...
yes indeed! We are exhorted in one of
the booklet essays, by Anthony Rooley
himself, to place this team high on
the list of musical-dramatic collaborations
... and why not? They had worked together
on many projects over a ten year spell.
The mere fact that their work is almost
entirely unknown and unperformed in
quite irrelevant. The pioneering Anthony
Rooley is going to remedy that.
This opera pre-dates
Handel's 'Semele' by 36 years. Although
in its arias and choruses it quite simply
lacks the memorable moments found in
the Handel work it does have much invention
The music of English
composers c.1700 has been an increasing
passion of Anthony Rooley for some years
now. This project was a labour of love
for him and his passion for the project
seems, as time progressed, to have spread
to the young performers too. They are
from the Florida University Opera School.
The background to their involvement
and a quick advertising job for the
school is given in the booklet notes.
Thinking of the notes
there is a very entertaining and chatty
essay concerning the opera, the plot
and mythology in general and also the
music itself by Anthony Rooley. This
certainly helped me to grasp what it
is all about, even if at the end I still
felt a little confused. There is a synopsis
and the complete text is given, plus
the stage directions and the tracking
and timings are clearly placed.
Back in the early 1990s
Rooley started his own CD label 'Musica
Oscura' which was sadly short-lived.
However it achieved some notable successes,
especially discs like 'The Mistress'
with songs by such notables as William
King, William Turner and John Blundeville.
These remind us that England was certainly
not at this time 'a land without music'
if you ever believed the statement.
This new CD confirms
that vital, virile and inventive music
was being written during the early seventeenth
century. If you had heard the superb
BBC Prom of a few years ago which consisted
of 'The Judgment of Paris' with sparkling
music by Daniel Purcell, John Weldon
and (again) John Eccles you would not
have been in any doubt. Now we can at
last savour a full-length baroque English
opera on CD in a charming and often
spell-binding performance with Rooley
as stage director.
You might fear at first.
as I did, yards and yards of seco recitative
and da capo arias but English opera
of this period is just not like that.
The action comes thick and fast and
progress is rarely held up. The story
is carried with a lively recitative
verging sometimes on arioso and the
conversations are paced so that one's
attention is retained.
include the short but memorable 'Dance
of the Zephyrs' - rather Purcellian,
and also in Act 2 the orchestral Symphony
(rather Corellian), Jigg and Round,
the beautifully sombre aria which follows
the Zephyrs 'O Sleep, why dost thou
leave me' (incidentally, compare this
with Handel's superb setting) followed
by a lively but minor key aria 'Sleep
forsaking' with a delightful obbligato
recorder. There is something so English
about this little tune, but it is soon
over and after a brief recit another
aria ensures, this time for a male voice
playing Jupiter. This seems to me rather
Handelian. I also much enjoyed the Cave's
mysterious music for Pizzicato strings,
representing dribbles of water; this
opens Act 3. Another amusing delight
was the opening string music of Act
II. The rhythm and mood remind me of
G&S; in fact 'With Cat like tread'
from 'HMS Pinafore'.
In many ways this is
a typical student production, but none
the worse for that. The voices are young
and fresh. In the case of Kathleen Phipps
who performs 'Athamus' the sound quite
'folksy'. There is rarely, in any voice,
a problem of tuning. Diction is always
excellent. Semele herself is sung by
Leslie Mangrum who has a most sophisticated
and versatile voice but is never plummy
or laden with vibrato. Perhaps the range
demanded for Jupiter is a little too
much for Matthew Robertson but he has
a dramatic sound and is excellent with
the text. I was also impressed with
Brenda Grau's characterization of Juno.
It is astonishing to
think that this music has never been
performed until now. Despite the high
reputation both of its creators enjoyed
in their lifetimes and despite the fact
that their other collaborations had
obviously been considerably successful,
I'm afraid the English preference for
things Italian took over. Indigenous
artists like Eccles and Congreve were
considered less able and less worthy.
Gradually English music
of this period is emerging and we should
be very grateful to this American project
for opening the eyes of us natives onto
a period in our history which has remained
mothballed for far too long.
Fine recording with
the voices well forward but instrumental
and continuo work never reduced to background