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Review of John Weldon's Judgment of Paris

30 October 2023

John Weldon’s The Judgment of Paris, performed by the Cambridge Handel Opera Company and The Academy of Ancient Music combined, has an interesting history.

It was submitted with other works, 3 in all, by John Eccles, Daniel Purcell (younger brother of Henry) and Gottfried Finger, each competing to write the best setting of a short operatic libretto by Restoration playwright William Congreve. The winner of the competition, organised by the Earl of Halifax, was to receive a substantial cash prize.

Of the 4 contestants Finger’s work has been lost, Purcell’s and Eccles’s contributions still find themselves occasionally performed, and recordings exist, but John Weldon’s opera, which actually won the competition, has until now been almost forgotten.

During the 1989 Proms season the C18th competition was re-enacted, and when put to an audience vote the winner this time was John Eccles. In fact, Eccles’s superb setting of his opera Semele (again to a libretto of Congreve’s) was memorably performed in 2019 in the same setting and with the same musical partnership, and a subsequent critically acclaimed recording of it released (2021). As with Semele a recording has been scheduled in the week following the performance of The Judgment of Paris, both concerts having shared the masterful direction of Julian Perkins, artistic director of CHOC and the driving force behind the recovery of ‘lost’ masterpieces of this kind.

Congreve’s opera libretto is described as a dramatic entertainment or ‘masque’, the kind of thing we find in Prospero’s ‘masque’ (The Tempest). But on the title page of Daniel Purcell’s arrangement The Judgment of Paris is described as ‘A Pastoral’. Pastoral is the oldest and most enduring of all literary genres and takes its name from the Latin verb ‘pascere’ to ‘feed’. Shepherds, the first human beings to hear of the birth of Christ, were feeders of their flocks, while Christ proclaims himself a pastor, a ‘Good Shepherd’ who feeds his lambs and sheep.

In the opera the shepherd Paris is at first discovered seated typically under a tree, and playing on his pipe. Soon though Mercury encourages him to scorn his crook and abandon his lowly and humble status to judge a beauty contest among three goddesses. To one of these he will give a golden apple and receive in return a gift.

The ultimate judgment of Paris favours Venus, goddess of love, and his reward is to obtain the matchless beauty, Hellen. In the myth the judgement is precursor to a longer narrative about how a particular choice can sometimes lead to other less desirable outcomes, from the original peace and innocence of a pastoral world to, for example in this case, the tragedy of the Trojan War.

Saturday’s production, the first (1989 Proms aside) in over 320 years, had a uniformly outstanding cast. The opening strident and compelling tones of Thomas Walker’s Mercury were reciprocated by Jonathan Brown’s formidable voice as Paris, a voice whose tone towards the end he modified into a quietly touching address to Venus (‘I yield, I yield’). The three goddesses represented a combination of registers as they set out their several claims for the attention of Paris. Helen Charlston’s Juno struck just the right balance between beauty and fear (‘beware’), Kitty Whately’s Pallas provided an equally engaging sequence on the glory and triumphs of war, while the beauty of Anna Dennis’s vocals (‘stay lovely youth’) had a low-key accompaniment of trumpet and recorder lending to her Venus the kind of soft and tender lyricism that would capture any shepherd’s heart.

The Academy of Ancient Music opened the proceedings with a suite of Weldon’s and underpinned all with a variety of symphonic and choric interventions. Very effective was the duo of Mercury and Paris (‘Happy thou of human race’), the goddesses’ trio of ‘they’ll deceive thee’ and Pallas and her attendants (Anna Cavaliero & Aksel Rykkvin) on victory in battle to the accompaniment of martial trumpet and drum.

The various poses and attitudes adopted by the cast, the (implicit) crowding of dramatic machinery and personae of the conclusion, as well as the comparative simplicity of language throughout, reminded us that this presentation was a ‘masque’. In the first quarter of the C17th Shakespeare was already in his final plays turning away from earlier wordy dramas to sparer and more masque-oriented ones. It would be possible, for example, just by miming the action of The Tempest, to give someone ignorant of the play a sense of what it was about, in a way that would be impossible with Hamlet. And The Judgment of Paris could in the same way yield up its meaning even if it were to dispense with language altogether.

Saturday’s wonderful concert, charged by an audience awareness of its significance, had the element of an ‘I was there’ event. Italian opera was destined to displace the potential of English operatic endeavour, but thanks to these initiatives promoting such artistry works like Semele and The Judgment of Paris are at last finding long overdue prominence.


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