The Queen’s Closet presents:
Opera – THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS (words by William Congreve)
with music by John Eccles, Daniel Purcell, John Weldon and Godfrey Finger
(a new edition by The Queen’s Closet)
CAST: Paris, a humble shepherd – Toby Gee
Mercury/Hermes, messenger of Jove – David Morriss
Juno/Saturnia, Goddess of Power – Barbara Paterson
Pallas Athena, Goddess of Victory in War – Rowena Simpson
Venus/Aphrodite, Goddess of Love – Anna Sedcole
MUSICIANS: Leader – Gregory Squire: Violins – Gregory Squire, CJ Macfarlane, Sarah Marten, Emma Brewerton: Violas – Lyndsay Mountfort, Gordon Lehany: ‘Cellos – Jane Young, Robert Ibell: Hoboys –
Sharon Lehany, Rebecca Grimwood: Recorders – Sharon Lehany, Gordon Lehany: Guitar – Peter Maunder: Harpsichord – Kristina Zuelicke: Trumpets – Gordon Lehany, Peter Reid, Chris Woolley, Peter Maunder: Timpani/Percussion – Larry Reese:
The Queen’s Closet Artistic Director: Gordon Lehany
Foxglove Ballroom, 57 Customhouse Quay, Wellington
Sunday 20th February, 2022
It was all as promised! – “…..With our sense of style and fun we will bring this 300 year-old music to life for Wellingtonians today” ran the Queen’s Closet’s online advertising blurb……..at the conclusion of all the fun and gaiety a roomful of Wellingtonians at the Foxglove Ballroom venue on the city’s waterfront readily testified to the success of this venture with sustained applause and subsequent babblings of excitement and satisfaction at the entertainment’s end. What might have appeared on paper to be a somewhat dusty-and-fusty, quasi-restoration of a musical event that happened a world away in London several centuries ago was here brought to life with confidence, elan and style, an operatic production refreshingly without the myriad theatrical trappings of a conventional staging – sets, lights, and elaborate costumes – and in terms of cheek-by-jowl accessibility all the better for it!
Originally, “The Judgement of Paris” was the subject of an event set up in 1700 by a group of “patrons of the arts” in London wanting to promote interest in “through-sung” opera in English, a form which, up to that time mostly consisted of works combining song with spoken drama. A “Musicke Prize” was offered to composers for the most effective setting of a libretto of the same name by William Congreve, already an established dramatist of the day. Four composers, John Weldon (1676-1736), John Eccles (1668-1735), Daniel Purcell (1664-1717) – a nephew (?) of the famous Henry Purcell – and Godfrey Finger (ca.1655/6-1730) entered the lists, their works being first performed individually during 1701, then staged in a kind of “grand final” in June 1703. By all accounts the result, an audience choice, caused some acrimony, with the supposed favourite, Eccles, beaten into second place by the least-favoured Weldon, with Purcell third, and an extremely disgruntled Finger placed last!
Only three of the four finished versions survive in score today, Finger’s having been lost, though other music of his is still extant – however, this didn’t deter the BBC Proms in 1989 from restaging what they could of the competition’s “Grand Final” in the Royal Albert Hall with the three extant operas (Anthony Rooley conducted the Consorte Of Musicke and Concerto Koln). Once again the audience was invited to choose the winner – and on this later occasion it was Eccles!
This production enterprisingly reconstructs a single performance of the work made up of selected excerpts from the three different complete scores, and compensates for the “missing composer” with an excerpt from one of Finger’s extant theatrical works, his 1701 suite for “Alexander the Great”, in this instance an aria “Morpheus, gentle God”. In this way we’re given a resounding “overview” of the achievement of the original enterprise and the individual composers concerned – alas, at that time the currents of the tides of fashion were set against the objectives of the promoters of “English opera”, with the new craze for Italian opera dominating the London scene, and setting in train a dearth of “true” English opera until the early twentieth century.
One of the most helpful features of the Queen’s Closet’s presentation was the accompanying written programme, which contained a good deal of the background information to the work summarised above, and a detailed synopsis of the opera’s plot complete with the individual musical numbers named and paired with their composer. We in the audience thus knew “where we were” at every step of the proceedings, adding enormously to our relish of the story, the characters and their interactions!
Interestingly, if one counts the numbers assigned to each composer in this realisation, Daniel Purcell wins the “musicians vote” by fourteen numbers to John Eccles’ twelve, with John Weldon scoring a discreet five. The unfortunate Godfrey Finger is represented by a single but important number, the first-half closer “Morpheus, gentle God”, no less!
It would take far too long to go through the entire work, commenting on each of the numbers, so a precis of the action will suffice for this review’s purposes – Paris, a humble shepherd, is visited by the celestial messenger Mercury/Hermes, who tells the amazed mortal that the gods wish him to award a golden apple to the most deserving of three important goddesses, Juno, Pallas Athena, and Venus. Paris is overwhelmed at the prospect and fearful for his survival in the face of the goddesses’ attentions, but Mercury assures him of his protection during the process. The goddesses arrive on the scene and each tries to persuade the shepherd to award her the prize. Paris’s response is to faint into a sleep during which Morpheus, God of Dreams is evoked to guide the shepherd in his choice.
The second half begins with Paris’s reawakening and interacting with the three Goddesses, each of whom he asks what she would offer him in return for the apple. Juno tempts Paris with power to rule over men, while Pallas Athena offers the shepherd victory in war. Lastly Venus reminds Paris of the true joy of love, which she promises will be his. As much through exhaustion as reason, Paris chooses Venus as the victor and gives her the apple, to the relief and satisfaction of the gods.
I was charmed by how well the semi-staged aspect of the presentation worked – everybody, musicians and audience, shared the same floorspace in the Foxglove Ballroom, with the singers moving through and around the musicians, spread in a semi-circle, to a rostrum at the left of the acting area immediately in front of the audience. The immediacy of it all made everything come alive, both the formal and more improvisatory aspects of what everybody did, the magic of stage transformation as strong as if in a more conventional theatre, perhaps by dint of the performers inviting its audience to participate creatively by “imagining for ourselves” each character’s fuller ramifications instead of having it all already “done” for us.
Each of the singers conveyed her or his character’s essence easily and naturally, Toby Gee’s “Paris” properly simple, rustic and unpretentious, set at first against the easy suavity and insouciance of David Morriss’s Mercury, the latter’s black-and-white garb a touch Mephistophelean, I first thought, if complete with a “sacred rod” (an umbrella, used with a “Singin’ in the Rain” kind of flair in places to great effect! The three Goddesses made the most of their respectively singular qualities, Barbara Paterson’s suave, worldly Juno by turns kittenish and commanding as required, making the perfect foil for both Rowena Simpson’s no-nonsense, forthright and ‘spot-on” Pallas Athena, and Anna Sedcole’s softer, sweeter, wide-eyed and winning Venus/Aphrodite. The stage business had a certain homespun quality which I found endearing, in the sense that nothing seemed overlaid, but instead “grew out of” both the music and the dramatic situations in an unforced way.
The singing, too, shared these qualities, in each case the vocal qualities managing to fit the characterisation splendidly – Toby Gee’s Paris sounded consistently and believably overawed in the situation he inadvertedly found himself, making the most of his bewilderment in “Distracted I turn, but cannot decide”, and aided by John Eccles’ engagingly “swinging” rhythms. I’ve never heard David Morriss sing with greater beauty, agility and tonal variety as here, with his Mercury – and his promised protection to Paris, “Fear not Mortal, none shall harm thee!” was suitably bolstered by some wry “umbrella-semaphoring”, to hilarious effect.
Each of the goddesses shone whilst vocally plying their respective virtues and powers – Barbara Paterson’s Juno was at her most imperious with Eccles’ “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, the voice ringing out, bolstered by the other characters in the music’s reprise, to a most exciting and invigorating string accompaniment. Equally authoritative was Rowena Simpson’s Pallas Athena, with bright, pinging notes supported by stirring work from trumpets and drums as she sang “Hark, hark, the glorious voice of war!”, with the following Handelian “O how glorious ‘tis to see!” further underlining the warlike sentiments.
After such entreaties it was a relief for the finer sensibilities to encounter Anna Sedcole’s Venus imploring Paris to listen to her very different message with, firstly Eccles’ “Stay, lovely Youth” (accompanied winningly by recorders, ‘cello and harpsichord), and then Weldon’s “One only joy mankind can know”, the latter becoming a kind of “Ode to Joy”-like chorale with the other singers joining in – heart-warming! – and if that wasn’t sufficiently disarming, then Sedcole’s singing of Purcell’s “Gentle Shepherd”, with a delicate guitar accompaniment, was the “piece de resistance” which disarmed Paris (and the rest of us!) completely – the rest, as they say, is – um, history! – with the shepherd completely undone and gladly bestowing upon Venus the golden apple – Paris’s “I yield” made a particularly moving and solemn impression, the voice alternating phrases with a hoboy, while guitar, ‘cello and harpsichord murmured in attendance.
There remains to extol the virtues of the band – most authoritatively led by Gregory Squire, the players delivered in spadefuls what seemed to me the essential character of each Symphony, Sonata movement and vocal accompaniment, be it grand or intimate, energetic or graceful. Perhaps the “shared space” venue had something to do with a ready quality of infectious enjoyment, evident in the relish with which each number’s singular quality was delivered by the players – the strings en masse stirred the blood in so many and different places (from stern grandeur to energetic abandonment throughout Eccles’s “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, for example) as did the thrills and occasional spills of the trumpets, all adding to the excitement and stirringly supported by Larry Reese’s timpani (in the same composer’s music for Pallas Athena – ‘Awake! Awake! Thy spirits arise!” and “Hark, hark! – the glorious voice of war!”). Contrasting most beguilingly with all this were the gentler, softer accents of the recorders, the hoboys, the guitar and ‘cello, invariably partnered by Kris Zuelicke’s eloquent harpsichord continuo, in much of the music for Paris (Finger’s “Morpheus, Gentle God”, where the singers’ voices are echoed by the recorders; and Venus’s appearance to Paris, coloured beautifully by recorders and the continuo instruments).
I, for one, would hope to hear more along these lines from the Queen’s Consort, whose efforts brought to life a world of musical and dramatic expression we don’t often get to experience in such a vivid and well-rounded way – very great honour to all concerned!