English music-theatre in the eighteenth-century has been so greatly overshadowed by Handelian Italian opera that audiences have rather forgotten about the native tradition of the masque. That is a pity as much as it is curious, since Purcell’s celebrated Dido and Aeneas at the end of the seventeenth-century is essentially the same type of work, and it might be expected that it would have inspired more attention to the genre’s subsequent development. It is interesting too that, with just a couple of exceptions, Handel himself avoided it. This recording goes some way to fill in our knowledge of the genre.
The 1740s witnessed a revival of interest in the dramas written around the turn of the eighteenth-century by two of the most prominent literary figures of that time, John Dryden and William Congreve, and intended for musical settings. The Judgment of Paris by the latter had been submitted for a competition in 1701, to be set to music by four composers (that by Daniel Purcell is relatively well-known in the annals of musical history if not in the concert hall). Thomas Arne’s later work first appeared in 1742, when it was performed alongside Handel’s Alexander’s Feast.
Although it has been revived by Bampton Classical Opera, this is claimed to be the work’s premiere recording, and on the whole John Andrews and The Brook Street Band do it justice. After the raw opening section of the Overture, with mournful solemn-sounding oboes, Andrews draws out a supple lift in the dance rhythms of the following Minuet and Gigue. Thereafter BSB’s chamber dimensions lend the performance a likeable intimacy and vivacity that is broadened out in the stately final chorus with trumpets, in which the vocal soloists are joined by Andrew Mahon for the bass line.
If anything, the singers perhaps make the work too operatic, as Arne’s setting of the text is generally more direct and less florid than the Italian operas of the period, but their interpretation ensures an ample dramatic presence. Ed Lyon tends either to declaim the part of Paris or to sing with a reedy warble that borders on caricature or the sort of hammed-up comic role one is more likely to encounter in Gilbert & Sullivan.
Standing in for the three goddesses (among whom Paris is commissioned by Mercury to choose as the recipient of the Golden Apple) the three female leads are more suitably imperious in this re-telling of a Greek myth. But they are also tellingly distinguished from each other, as they demonstrate in their charming trio ‘Hither turn thee, gentle swain’, in which they each seek to persuade Paris of their merits, with some flamboyant ornamentation. Where Gillian Ramm’s Juno retains a clean, crisp tone at a high range, Mary Bevan’s Venus rightly exudes more ravishing allure at a similar register; Susanna Fairbairn is more brittle, in contrast, as Pallas (i.e. Athena). As Mercury, Anthony Gregory provides a lighter, more lyrical foil to their urgent arguments.
Arne’s score only survives in a published version which preserves the arias alone. Ian Spink’s performing edition for Musica Britannia reconstructs the recitatives and choruses, but this recording omits the latter which use the same text as some of the arias and accordingly adapt the same music. Only three choruses make it here, therefore, as the others are “not necessary to the plot” as the accompanying essay argues. Maybe so, but it seems a pity not to include them for the sake of musical variety and completeness. In any case, the full text is included, with those omitted choruses also cued.
As such this release is still a welcome document as an exploration of Arne’s theatrical output apart from Alfred (with its celebrated ‘Rule, Britannia!’) and will perhaps inspire further re-discovery of that repertoire.