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Thomas Arne, Alfred; The Judgement of Paris:  Bampton Classical Opera. Holywell Music Room Oxford, 7.11.2010 (RJ)

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 Chaundry 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 Judgement 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 Chaundry 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 Chaundry'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 burn, 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.

Londoners will be able to see this programme at the Wigmore Hall on 12th February 2011. The company also has plans to stage Gluck's Il Parnasso Confuso and Cimarosa's L'Italiana in Londra in 2011.

Roger Jones

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