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John ECCLES (c.1668-1735)
The Judgment of Paris (1701) [49.37]
Restless in Thought disturbed in Mind (1695) [4.12] (1)
Love's but the frailty of the Mind (1700) [4.34] (2)
I burn, I burn, my Brain consumed to Ashes (1694) [3.26] (3)
Mercury Roderick Williams (baritone); Paris Benjamin Hulett (tenor); Juno Susan Bickley (mezzo) (3); Pallas Claire Booth (soprano) (2); Venus Lucy Crowe (soprano) (1)
Chorus of Early Opera Company; Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn
rec. 22-23 July 2008, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
CHANDOS CHAN0759 [62.14] 
Experience Classicsonline

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.

John 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. 

In 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 in disgust. 

Despite 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. 

Whilst 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

They 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. 

The 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.

This 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 rediscovered.

Robert Hugill



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