In 1701 Lord Halifax and a group of other notables organised a
competition whereby a group of composers would set the same libretto
and the results be judged. Their intention was to increase interest
in through-composed English opera. The librettist was the playwright
Congreve and the libretto was The Judgment of Paris. Four
composers (John Eccles, Daniel Purcell, Gottfried Finger and John
Weldon) set the libretto and their operas were performed singly
and then finally all together for the grand judgment.
Eccles had worked with Henry Purcell and was responsible for
the music at the Lincolns Inn Fields theatre and his setting
of The Judgment of Paris was performed by a cast from
Lincolns Inn Fields including Ann Bracegirdle as Venus. The
Drury Lane and Dorset Gardens theatres
used professional singers to provide the musical contributions
and remained devoted to the semi-opera form familiar from
Purcell's work. But at Lincolns Inn Fields, the actors sang
as well so that Eccles was used to providing relatively strong
and straight-forward music for singing actors. The best of
his work is in the songs he wrote for the plays, three of
which are on this disc. The Judgment of Paris is impressive;
Eccles displays a flexibility of line and a limpid responsiveness
to Congreve's strong libretto.
the late 1980s Antony Rooley and the Consort of Music performed
Eccles setting of The Judgment of Paris along with
those of Daniel Purcell and John Weldon at the Proms and the
audience then voted for their favourite. This time Eccles
won, but in 1701 Weldon was the winner with Eccles coming
second. Weldon went on to drop theatre music and devote himself
to sacred music. Finger came last and left England
the Proms performance, Eccles' charming little opera has not
had much exposure and it is heartening to find that Christian
Curnyn and his Early Opera Group have been performing the
work and have recorded it.
Eccles does not display the brilliance that Purcell had in
creating superbly memorable moments, he does have a nice turn
in the characterisation needed for such a compact work.
piece opens with a symphony for Mercury. Then the god (Roderick
Williams) informs Paris of his delightful task. Williams swaggers
beautifully as Mercury. Paris (Benjamin Hulett) is a relatively
small part but Hulett ensures that Paris feels like a cameo of a real character and not just a cypher. The
three goddesses are nicely differentiated. Each is introduced
by a symphony and an aria, then after Paris
has declared how difficult his task is, each goddess makes
a further appeal.
first goddess on the podium is Juno (Susan Bickley), who offers
Paris worldly power. Bickley is rich-toned,
believable and characterful as the queen of the gods. Second
up is Pallas (Athene) sung by Claire Booth. She hymns the
pleasures and delights of war. Booth is youthful sounding
and eager, convincing as a young, enthusiastic goddess. The
final one is for Venus and in the original Ann Bracegirdle
must have been enchanting. On the disc, Curnyn has Lucy Crowe
who is equally seductive as Venus.
are accompanied in fine style by Curnyn and the Early Opera
Company, a relatively small group of just 22 players. They
play using the low French baroque pitch and the orchestra
uses no double-basses, just bass viols, which gives the band
a warm feeling.
disc is completed with three songs from A Collection of
Songs published in 1704. The three Mad Songs performed
here were all written for the theatre; the genre of mad songs
was popular at the time. Two of those recorded were written
for Ann Bracegirdle. Restless in Thought comes from
the anonymous play 'She Ventures, and He Wins' written in
1695. It was intended for Mary Hodgson, who would play Juno
in The Judgment of Paris. Mrs. Bracegirdle sang Loves
but the frailty of the mind in Congreve's 'The Way of
the World' in 1700. Her encounter with I burn, I burn
from D'Urfey's 'The Comical History of Don Quixote' led her
to declare that she would sing music by no other composer.
Here the songs are allocated to each of the three female singers,
one each. And each displays a nice turn for Eccles's music.
The songs are more character pieces than the opera, allowing
them to perform with vividness.
is a lovely disc. The Judgment of Paris is a piece of English operatic history,
but more than that it is a forgotten gem which deserves to be