The Times review of Judgment of Paris

News and Reviews

Review of John Weldon's Judgment of Paris

30 October 2023

Two beauty contests inspired the little-known John Weldon to compose The Judgement of Paris in 1701. The first was a competition lavishly funded by some well-heeled aristocrats who wanted to boost the English opera scene, which was faltering then as now. So they invited four composers to set the same text by William Congreve, the sauciest dramatist of the day. Mischievously, Congreve chose another competition as his subject: the one from the ancient Greek legend in which Paris is invited to choose which of Juno, Pallas and Venus is the fairest goddess of them all.

Weldon won the musical contest, but posterity hasn’t been kind to him. Whereas two of the also-rans, John Eccles and Daniel Purcell, have had their versions recorded in modern times, Weldon’s winner has had to wait 322 years for any sort of revival. Happily, the excellent forces assembled here under Julian Perkins’s direction ? the well-tuned chorus of the Cambridge Handel Opera Company, the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music and a clutch of characterful soloists ? will also record the piece next week.

It’s worth hearing. Weldon was a pupil of Henry Purcell, and the older man’s influence is clear. But he was obviously also alert to the more mellifluous, vocally virtuosic styles coming from the Continent (Handel’s arrival in London was only a decade away). So you get a real crossover feel in his light-fingered score.

I can’t say there’s much emotional depth in the music, but nor is there in the story. The three goddesses strut their stuff in front of the dazzled shepherd, who optimistically declares that “since a gay robe an ill shape may disguise, when each is undrest I’ll judge of the best” ? a line you can imagine chortled by Sid James in a Carry On movie.

What Weldon does supply is a string of catchy tunes, put over with irresistible verve by Kitty Whately, Helen Charlston, Thomas Walker and Jonathan Brown. Fittingly, however, it is Anna Dennis’s sublimely radiant singing as Venus that steals the show, just as her character wins Paris’s golden apple.

Richard Morrison

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Cambridge Independent review of Judgment of Paris

News and Reviews

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.

JOHN GILROY

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Larks Reviews review of Tamerlano

News and Reviews

Review of Handel's Tamerlano

12 April 2022

The successor to the Cambridge Handel Opera Group, the Cambridge Handel Opera Company aims to perform Handel’s operas in productions in which both music and staging are informed by the practices of Handel’s own day. The casts field upcoming performers alongside established singers, and the orchestra blends leading professionals with senior students from conservatoires across Britain and elsewhere. Four years after their inaugural production of Rodelinda in 2018, they returned to the stage of the Leys School with perhaps the least-known of the three operas (Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda) which Handel produced in the space of one remarkable year from February 1724.

Any concerns that a “historically informed” production of Tamerlano would mean three hours of singers standing and delivering baroque arias while wearing togas were dispelled during the overture when a band of soldiers in military uniform of the early twentieth century burst onto the stage in search of the defeated Ottoman emperor Bajazet and his daughter. The setting suggested post-World War I Turkey, and James Laing’s Tamerlano, with fez and toothbrush moustache, a young Atatürk. It’s not the first Handel opera production I have seen set in this kind of milieu and I suspect it won’t be the last; the intrigues of baroque opera seem peculiarly suited to the world of King Zog, Admiral Horthy and the other régimes which succeeded the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in South-Eastern Europe.

Director Dionysios Kyropoulos had aimed to incorporate aspects of the acting technique of Handel’s time into his production, and it is perhaps testimony to the effectiveness of his approach that for much of the evening I was not aware of it, the performances seeming perfectly natural within the constraints of baroque convention. A single set piece depicting a fallen classical column suggested a defunct empire, and served as couch or throne as required. The band, bigger than we often get in Handel with a theorbo on continuo duties as well as two harpsichords, was arranged as it would have been in an eighteenth-century opera house. One departure from historic practice was that the opera was sung in English in an excellent translation founded on that by Handel Opera Group founder Andrew Jones. Clear diction by the cast ensured that there was no need for distracting surtitles, and there was a great gain in dramatic immediacy.

In the title role, James Laing presented an almost effete figure who was nonetheless capable of unpredictable fits of rage and cruelty. He despatched his furioso coloratura runs with impressive ease, though his relatively light voice was not always well-balanced with the large orchestra. His defeated rival Bajazet is a rare big role for a tenor in baroque opera, seized with both hands by Christopher Turner. He too had an impressive “rage” aria, in which the big band came into its own, the singer borne aloft on tossing seas of semiquavers. But he also brought out the complexities of a role which might seem tediously unbending, and his embodiment of the character’s physical as well as mental disintegration in the final death scene – one of Handel’s most astonishing passages – was what remained in the memory.

The evening had begun with an apology on behalf of Thalie Knights who had been suffering with vocal problems, but in the event it was hardly necessary. In the role of Andronico, Tamerlano’s war ally and love rival, she brought a welcome inward quality to her most deeply-felt arias, gradually increasing in power as the evening progressed. As Bajazet’s daughter Asteria, Caroline Taylor commanded attention from her first entrance. This is perhaps the character in the opera with most agency, making not one but two assassination attempts on the title character and generally holding her own in a male world. Taylor was fully equal to the challenge, and throughout brought a steely intensity and powerful presence to the role.

Modern productions of Handel tend to assume that audiences won’t stand for three hours of the seria mood, and the entrance of Tamerlano’s “other woman” Irene and her entourage, costumed as if they were visiting a country house in a Poirot mystery, brought a noticeable lightening of the mood. Leila Zanette’s limpid mezzo and Jolyon Loy’s rich bass in his one aria brought welcome contrast in an opera when high voices predominate, though it was in these scenes that I felt that the baroque gestures sometimes tipped over into mannerism.

Directing from the harpsichord, Julian Perkins pacing and dynamic control brought out all the tension and passion of Handel’s writing. The whole evening was a triumphant vindication of Handel the musical dramatist – I hope we will not have to wait another four years for the next production.

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Planet Hugill review of Tamerlano

News and Reviews

Review of Handel's Tamerlano

12 April 2022

Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) debuted in 2018 with Handel’s Rodelinda (but the company inherited the mantle of Cambridge Handel Opera Group which ran from 1985 to 2013). CHOC’s follow up production was intended to be Handel’s Tamerlano in 2020, but events got in the way and the production finally debuted last week at the Great Hall, The Leys, Cambridge (seen 9 April 2022). The opera was directed by Dionysios Kyropoulos, conducted by Julian Perkins (CHOC’s artistic director) and designed by Rachel Szmukler. James Laing was Tamerlano and Christopher Turner was Bajazet with Caroline Taylor as Asteria, Thalie Knights as Andronico, Leila Zanette as Irene and Jolyon Loy as Leone.

Tamerlano might be a great masterpiece but it remains something of a challenge for 21st century performance conventions and for modern audiences – the sheer concentration of the plot, five people confined together exploring their mutual interactions, the length of the arias and the time it takes to work things through. CHOC’s solution was to approach Dionysios Kyropoulos.

He is Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama [see my interview] and is very interested in combining historical stagecraft with modern performance, in fact one of his descriptions of his course at the Guildhall is acting for singers. Certainly there was nothing self-consciously historical about the production. The eclectic costumes were loosely 20th century, the set was simply black curtains with a fallen column (used variously as a place of reclining and a throne). The acting style was certainly well away from the idea of singers standing and striking a pose. Instead, there was a repertoire of gestures and poses worked into the drama and used according to rhetorical principles. Kyropoulos did not have the luxury of a long rehearsal period (though there were some workshops beforehand) and it was clear that some singers were more accustomed to using the repertoire of gestures and poses than others. But there was a vivid sense of engagement to the performance, with the ensemble scenes having a sense of active drama as those listening responded in a way that drew them (and us) into the drama.

There was no extraneous business, no sense of the audience needing to be entertained during the long arias, and certainly a solution to the problem of what to do with the singers’ hands. In this production, the throne room scene (the longest sequence of secco recitative that Handel wrote) was positively gripping throughout.

Of course, none of this would work without strong performances and CHOC’s cast was strong and well balanced.

The role of Bajazet is something of a challenge. Handel wrote few such tenor roles and finding singers up to the challenge of combining drama, highly ornamented vocal lines and period performance, along with the necessary stamina, is tricky, especially as the tessitura is somewhat low (one recent recording cast the role with a high baritone). We last saw Christopher Turner singing an impressive Pollione to Helena Dix’s Norma with Chelsea Opera Group [see my review]. Here he took a jump back 100 years, a drop down in pitch (I assume) and period instruments, and showed himself well able to create drama within the confines of the period style.

His Bajazet developed from belligerence to powerful intensity. He was unusually sympathetic, we might not like him but we could understand. Turner was adept at moving is big voice in a stylish manner, by turns thrilling and intimate, and we understood his love for his daughter. And it ended with a truly remarkable death scene; one of the most astonishing scenes that Handel wrote and sung with remarkably powerful, focused intensity. And I would certainly love to hear him as Handel’s Samson.

In the title role, James Laing was a world away from his psychotic Tamerlano in Vivaldi’s Il Bajazet with Irish National Opera [see my review]. Here, he moved from the almost flippant to the intensely dramatic when Asteria (Caroline Taylor) thwarts him and Andronico (Thalie Knights) finally admits that he is Tamerlano’s rival for her affections. Yet throughout, Laing gave us a sense of the constant and unpredictable danger lurking underneath. In the opera, Tamerlano’s music is surprisingly non-psychotic, and Laing made sense of this, giving dramatic shape to the character and dazzling us with some vivid coloratura and vivid, yet stylish, ornaments.

Technically, Andronico is the star of the opera. The role was written for star castrato Senesino (the title role was sung by the more junior Andrea Pacini and he got four arias to Senesino’s six), and at the end he gets the girl. But, Oh, he is such a drip. None of the drama would happen if only he said something to Tamerlano in the first act. But Thalie Knights definitely wasn’t a drip; she had a way of being solid and centred on stage which, in the opening scenes, brought out the more positive aspects of Andronico’s character. And Knights combined this with a beautifully well-modulated vocal line. Andronico might be rather passive, particularly in the first half of the opera, but Knights and Kyropoulos made him a far more positive presence, vividly portrayed. The character might not get the triumphal final aria that Handel allots Bertarido in Rodelinda (another drip), but Knights and Caroline Taylor took full advantage of Andronico and Asteria’s gorgeous duet.

As Asteria, Caroline Taylor began demure and butter-wouldn’t-melt, helped by her stylish yet very conventional frock. But Taylor also found another vein; this Asteria had spitfire moments and was clearly her father’s daughter. Taylor brought highly expressive facial expressions and body language to the Throne Room Scene, making Asteria a very active participant even when saying little, and at the end of the scene Taylor was profoundly moving when Asteria addresses Bajazet, Andronico and Irene in turn, then ends the act with her powerful aria.

It was a real shame we did not get Asteria’s aria ‘Cor di padre’ in Act Three (yes, I know it holds things up but I would have loved to hear Taylor singing it). At the end, Taylor did not sing in the finale coro, instead she took part in a funeral processions for Bajazet which crossed the rear of the stage, an imaginative and moving touch.

Irene can seem something of an after thought; certainly Irene in Handel’s Tamerlano is a world away from the avenging fury of the character in Vivaldi’s opera. Here, Leila Zanette made the more of each of Irene’s three arias, making each wonderfully vivid and the character seem far more an active participant in the drama. At times Zanette was positively thrilling and stylish too, both vocally and in the way she carried her 1930s frock.

Jolyon Loy was a remarkably camp Leone, bringing a sense of vividness to a character to who is marginal to the drama. Whilst it would have been nice to hear Loy singing Leone’s aria, in fact it is rather dramatically redundant and perfectly understandable that it was omitted. The company also included three hard-working actors in non-speaking roles, Victoria Adler, Floki Carlsen and Johan Ribbing, and besides appearing on stage, both Carlsen and Ribbing assisted the stage director whilst Adler also helped with wardrobe.

In the pit, the orchestra combined six members of Julian Perkins’ ensemble Sounds Baroque with students from a variety of conservatoires including members of CHOC Talent Development Programme. They sat in historical formation, first violins, oboes and bassoon in a line facing the stage, the others in a line facing them with the two harpsichords in between (Julian Perkins directed from the harpsichord). A couple of moments of ensemble apart, the results were engaging and convincing. The 23 players made a very full, rich sound and under Perkins’ direction gave us a very active counterpart to the stage action. And we even got the two period clarinets in Irene’s Act Two aria.

The opera was sung in English, and whilst not every word was understandable, plenty came over and it was heartening to hear how music, drama and text came together, particularly in the recitatives. The opera was cut, but Kyropoulos had done so sympathetically and we never felt short changed. After all there was still around three hours of music.

We caught the final performance of the production’s short run, coming at the end of what must have been a particularly intense week for the performers, encompassing four performances and a dress rehearsal in six days. The venue, the Great Hall at the Leys, proved to be a gem of a modern theatre; built in 2012/13 it is a traditional horse-shoe shape with a compact auditorium providing the right sized space for this type of production.

This was not a psychological production in the sense Freud might have understood it. Instead, Dionysios Kyropoulos combined 18th century stagecraft with modern sensibility to create a very active drama that was wonderfully engrossing, with some damned fine singing and playing.

In the afternoon, we had a fascinating study session on the opera. Prof David Kimbell sketched in some of the background to the opera, the libretto and Handel’s relationships, whilst Prof Reinhard Strohm gave superb insight into the changing way Tamerlano (Tamburlaine, Timur Leng) and Bajazet were perceived, both as historical characters and as avatars for more modern figures like King William III and King Louis XIV. In fact, continuing popularity of Nicholas Rowe’s play Tamburlaine made you wonder about the choice of the subject for Handel’s opera, even though his treatment of the characters is very different. Handel’s extensive revisions to the opera before the first performance led to cuts and deletions, and we heard three excised numbers; two of which were probably the first UK performances!

Mezzo-soprano Lydia Haynes (doing double duty as Irene and Andronico) and counter-tenor Eliran Kadussi (as Tamerlano) sang two duets from Handel’s original ending, whilst soprano Avalon Summerfield gave us Asteria’s lovely Cor di Padre, all three accompanied by Julian Perkins (piano). And having interviewed Dionysios Kyropoulos recently, it was lovely to hear him talk of his approach to historical stagecraft and actually demonstrate the techniques he was talking about.

Robert Hugill

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Cambridge Independent review of Tamerlano

News and Reviews

Review of Handel's Tamerlano

7 April 2022

The Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) is committed to performing Handel’s entire operatic legacy (as well as music by his contemporaries), and its latest production is Tamerlano (1724), a work signed off (although there were later revisions) after amazingly 20 days only in the making.

Handel was a man of the theatre, as well as a composer, and it’s his distinctive dramatic imagination that makes his music as a whole unique. His operas combine structural balance and superb characterisation with tremendous musical impact.

Tamerlano is a perfect example, and CHOC’s artistic director and eminent keyboardist, Julian Perkins, conducting the truly wonderful Sounds Baroque orchestra from the harpsichord, and accompanied by his uniformly excellent cast, is presenting it currently (April 5-9) at the Leys School Great Hall.

The opera’s story, rather a dark one, which has English, French and Italian sources, explores a range of human emotions and situations, including power, deceit, sexual intrigue, lust, betrayal, misapprehension and loyalty, and creates, via its relatively few (six in number) dramatis personae, complex characterisations where audience response to an individual can never be just a simple one.

Tamerlano, for example, is either a brutal potentate and lustful tyrant, or an even-handed governor. Bajazet is essentially the implacable enemy of Tamerlano, or an intensely loyal and devoted father to Asteria, superbly played here by Caroline Taylor as she portrays a development from a young love-consumed woman to one of determination and action.

James Laing (Tamerlano) and Christopher Turner (Bajazet) evoke perfectly the ambivalent responses we are obliged to make, as also does Thalie Knights (Andronico) caught in the difficult situation of being politically allied to Tamerlano, but, as the lover of Asteria, keeping on terms with Tamerlano’s enemy and his prospective father-in-law, Bajazet.

Irene (Leila Zanette), Tamerlano’s betrothed, is both desirous of world rule and shows her ambition, but is equally sympathetic as a character who understandably feels betrayed as she is manipulated into being the wife of Andronico in place of Tamerlano.

The plot-promoting Leone is convincingly presented by Jolyon Loy who, with his philosophical vision, is a kind of anchor of normality amidst all this chaos and confusion.

Of course the humanity and psychological insight of the operatic narrative is compounded by some of the most thrilling and inventive music ever written. Christopher Turner delivered a bravura performance of the aria If Heaven and Earth to Arms he call and Caroline Taylor was spellbinding in the aria which concludes Act 2, Ah not happy! How at ease? with its beautiful melody and orchestration. Jolyon Loy was impressive, too, with Love makes war.

Tamerlano calls for singers of the highest vocal calibre, and the artists in this production presented among themselves over 20 arias to carry the emotional impetus, demonstrating not only Handel’s gift as a melodist but also their own outstanding individual abilities to reveal it.

An ambitious and large-scale stage presentation such as Tamerlano can only be accomplished by a talented creative team. The informed and overall artistic vision and musicianship of Julian Perkins was ably underpinned throughout by Dionysius Kyropoulos (stage director), and contributory production members who’d stepped in when Covid struck and together ensured the unflagging quality, completeness and striking visuals of a lengthy production.

Julian Perkins has remarked that CHOC has taken almost as a kind of guiding principle Endless Pleasure, a song of Handel’s from Semele. Its first production, Rodelinda, was in 2018.

If the company carries on with its intention, namely to produce a staged Handel opera (of the 40 or so) every two years, and starting more or less from now, in my opinion, and based on its track record so far, this will be just about as close to endless pleasure as it’s possible to get.

John Gilroy

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

The Stage review of Tamerlano

News and Reviews

Review of Handel's Tamerlano

6 April 2022

Countertenor James Laing is making a speciality of Tamerlano – the historical Timur and the Tamburlaine of Christopher Marlowe’s play. He portrayed the Tartar conqueror in Vivaldi’s Bajazet at the Royal Opera House in January – now he becomes the title character in Handel’s similarly themed opera. Both operas draw on a libretto by the Venetian Agostino Piovene, but Handel’s is far more frequently performed – justly so, since it counts as one of his greatest stage works. The Cambridge Handel Opera Company has adapted an English translation dating from 1731. There are no surtitles – in the intimate Leys theatre cast members make the words clear and director Dionysios Kyropoulos keeps the motivations and relationships clear.

Played on a black-curtained stage adorned with a lone broken pillar, the action is discreetly updated from about 1400 to circa 1930. Andronico – Tamerlano’s Greek ally, who loves Asteria, daughter of the defeated Ottoman sultan Bajazet – sports splendid gold epaulettes, and the costumes of Tamerlano and his silent henchmen evoke the Caucasus. Whenever Laing – or Christopher Turner as his antagonist and prisoner Bajazet – takes the stage, the Handelian thrill quotient rises. Both are seasoned performers and project their characters strongly in both vocal and physical terms. Tamerlano, mercurial and dangerous, expresses himself virtuosically. Bajazet, intransigent, but noble, is largely defined by his declamation. Unusually for Handel, this tragic hero is a tenor, though this is not a ‘top notes’ role. Turner’s capacity for shaping and colouring a line, and for probing the text, is of the essence.

Asteria is circumscribed, yet ferocious. The lush underlay to Caroline Taylor’s pellucid voice suggests this duality, but, like her character, she never quite goes for the kill. In a role composed for the star 18th-century castrato Senesino, Thalie Knights as Andronico needs to add more flash to her deep, mellow tone and to her stoical demeanour. Leila Zanette – another mezzo-soprano, but brighter of sound – brings elegance and point to Irene, the princess betrothed to Tamerlano. Her confidant Leone is a lounge lizard in co-respondent shoes, and Jolyon Loy sings him with resonance and swagger.

Kyropoulos, professor of historical stagecraft at the Guildhall School, takes a largely naturalistic approach in his staging. Some bolder stylisations might heighten the often brutal drama. Likewise, there could be more edge to the impeccably stylish conducting of Julian Perkins and the refined playing of the period-instrument orchestra.

Still, there is no lack of intensity in the pivotal, near-fatal ensemble scene at the end of Act II – written almost entirely in recitative – and in Bajazet’s death throes, protracted in true operatic fashion, but breathtakingly inventive as music drama.

Yehuda Shapiro

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

BBC Music review of Semele

News and Reviews

Review of Eccles's Semele

01 March 2021

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

A lost masterpiece of English opera revived

Julian Perkins and Cambridge Early Opera dust off John Eccles’s 1706 Semele – and it’s a scintillating triumph, says Berta Joncus

Eccles' Semele

Anna Dennis (soprano)
Richard Burkhard (baritone)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Héloïse Bernard (soprano)
Graeme Broadbent (bass)
Cambridge Early Opera
Academy of Ancient Music
Julian Perkins
AAM AAM012   121:27 mins (2 discs)

John Eccles’s sexy, sparkling opera bursts to life – finally! Shelved in 1706, Semele has never been professionally recorded, so this production was worth waiting for. Cast, band, director and sound are all top-notch, restoring Eccles’s score to its full glory.

The project grew out of Julian Perkins’s November 2019 Cambridge Handel Opera Company concert performance, with rising-star soloists singing alongside the more seasoned professional names. It’s astonishing that Eccles’s Semele is obscure: the libretto, by William Congreve, is as yummy as Eccles’s music. Adapting Ovid, Congreve has Semele joyously join Jupiter in illicit love, escaping thereby an unwanted earthly match. Jupiter’s enraged wife Juno, in the guise of Semele’s sister, goads Semele to trap Jupiter into granting her wish that he show himself to her as a god, which kills her.

Thanks to Perkins’s deft casting, each principal’s vocalism and dramatis persona are wonderfully matched. As Semele, Anna Dennis is at first seductive in her delicacy, then frightening in her steely-toned ambition. Dark-timbred mezzo soprano Helen Charlston’s Juno flares magnificently, unafraid to sound ugly when furious. Baritone Richard Burkhard captures Congreve’s sensual yet

thoughtful Jupiter, texturing every word. The show-stealer is soprano Héloïse Bernard who, as Juno’s servant Iris, forges riveting moments from modest material, such as ‘Thither Flora the Fair’. In this brief chaconne, Bernard drapes each stanza in increasingly gorgeous embellishments, dropping dramatically into chest register for her last verse.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s playing is just as fascinating. Perkins directs from the harpsichord with a demonic intensity. When individual band members take over the storytelling, their solos gild Eccles’s invention with their own. Lost instrumental numbers – symphonies, dances, ritornellos – known on the page only from stage directions, are here taken from other Eccles compositions. They give the AAM further opportunity to strut, from the regal Overture (from his Rinaldo and Armida), to the sparkling ‘Dance of the Zephyrs’ (from his Aires).


Helen Charlston's Juno flares magnificently, unafraid to sound ugly when furious


Eccles’s solo and instrumental writing are both exquisite, but he experiments most boldly in his vocal ensembles. In these, catchy tunes and rhythms belie the sophistication of counterpoint and motivic networking as entwined solo voices typically yield to regal choruses or symphonies.

Perkins commands a gamut of responses to the ensembles’ charms, from crystal-clear voicing to big, fat homophonic swells. The Act I quartet ‘Why dost thou thus untimely grieve?’, in which four characters each express a different foreboding, captures both Eccles’s originality and the performers’ brilliance: after introducing the common theme, the soloists, taking their cue from Perkins’s keyboard playing, gently decelerate their points of imitation to bring the quartet to a brooding close.

With early career vocalists among the cast, there are minor imperfections, but this is a superb reconstruction of a lost Eccles masterpiece.

PERFORMANCE

★★★★★

RECORDING

★★★★★

An interview with Julian Perkins

Why has Eccles’s version of this story been so neglected?

When people think of Semele, they inevitably think of Handel’s version. When Handel came to England he conquered everything before him. With this opera by Eccles, it’s an intriguing ‘what if?’ in musical history; what would have happened had Handel not come to England?

How different are Handel and Eccles’s versions?

This is a very different work to Handel’s. In Handel’s version the character of Semele comes across as a sort of voluptuous sex-kitten; it’s so exuberant, with its wonderfully florid, excessive vocal runs. Eccles captures a much darker, more brooding Semele; and it’s probably worth remembering William Congreve worked with Eccles on this libretto, so there was a synergy between composer and librettist. Handel’s is based on Congreve, but the composer adapted it, plus there’s text by Pope and others in there.

Also, Eccles’s recitatives are so detailed, which comes from a more Monteverdi style of recitative writing. Handel’s was more of a broad brush.

Were you surprised by what you discovered in Eccles’s work?

I was struck by Eccles’s uncanny ability to differentiate his writing for all the different singers – there are 15 different roles. So it made casting a wonderful challenge. It’s always going to be compared to Handel’s masterpiece, but I think what also surprised me was the fact that it’s such a direct but concise work, but very nuanced at the same time. For an opera, a lot of drama is packed into a relatively short amount of time.

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Cambridge Independent review of Semele

News and Reviews

Review of Eccles's Semele

29 November 2019

‘…So this was something of an event and, as it turned out, an event outstanding in every conceivable way.

First of all, Eccles’s Semele is a work of great beauty and intelligence so that one found oneself constantly asking (rather as with Handel’s Brockes Passion) how it had managed to fall through the net for so long.

Julian Perkins, Artistic Director of CHOC, conducted the orchestra from the harpsichord, and the orchestra was joined by a uniformly excellent cast of singers who presented the opera, a work at once tragic, comic and satirical with each of these elements in performance emerging in exactly the right proportions.

Myths were the vehicles by which men originally represented archetypal situations, and stories describing relationships between mankind and its gods seem to have been ways of acknowledging the twofold nature of man.

Semele loves Jupiter, a god. Jupiter establishes her in a palace for love-making; another example would be the palace the god Cupid makes for his mortal love, Psyche.

An undertone of sexuality pervades Congreve’s libretto (the same one used by Handel), accentuated by Héloïse Bernard’s (Iris) emphasis on ‘erected’ (‘Behold a new-erected Palace rise’) and Cupid’s description of the post-coital Semele.

Here it’s worth adding that Mezzo-Soprano, Bethany Horak-Hallett’s (Cupid) delivery of her only four lines in the opera revealed such a beautiful voice as to be typical of how the briefest as well as the lengthiest casting roles were all of a piece in the consistency of the production’s excellence.

The voice of Mezzo-Soprano Helen Charlston (Juno) hit astonishing heights in passages such as ‘Somnus, arise’ and ‘above measure is the pleasure’, while Soprano Anna Dennis leant appropriate drama to the role of Semele, especially in the petulance of her sequence demanding immortality from Jupiter.

Semele (‘Aiming at immortality with dangerous ambition’) reveals all the faults and foibles which would have rung alarm bells in the early eighteenth century. Pope argued that Man should be content with his station. (’Why has not Man a microscopic eye? For this plain reason, Man is not a fly’). Pride, hubris, was the cardinal sin, and Semele is lured into committing it by the vengeful Juno (Myself I shall adore, / If I persist in gazing; / No object sure before / Was ever half so pleasing’).

Art was required to be moral (‘Hence satire rose, that just the medium hit, / And heals with morals what it hurts with wit’) so the joyful proclamation by Apollo of the age of Bacchus (child of Jupiter and the now defunct Semele) is to be taken with a pinch of salt perhaps ( ‘. . when Bacchus is born, Love’s Reign’s at an end’). As is known, wine enhancing desire, takes away the performance.

The outstanding range of superb voices and an orchestra of flawless period authenticity made it a privilege for the audience to be present at this masterful production. This is the one which will no doubt ensure that John Eccles’s Semele goes on to enjoy a reputation it so much deserves.’

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

Opera Magazine review of Semele

News and Reviews

Review of Eccles's Semele

29 November 2019

The Academy of Ancient Music did full justice to the score, under the direction of Julian Perkins on the harpsichord, with Peter Holman playing the harpsichord continuo. Virtuoso wielding of the thunder sheet by Elaine So provided essential punctuation to Semele’s rise and fall.

All the vocal soloists were excellent. Anna Dennis sang Semele with her pure, powerful soprano and was a commanding stage presence. She has the ability to take rather ordinary notes and give them point and meaning. The mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston did full justice to the role of the furious Juno, full of spiteful passion, her coloratura passages proving her to be the real prima donna here.

The baritone Richard Burkhard was a convincing Jupiter, smooth and resonant. Semele’s abandoned swain Athamas was sung by William Wallace in a pleasing tenor and the infatuated Ino by Aoife Miskelly, employing light operatic vibrato in an affecting ‘You’ve undone me’. Héloïse Bernard’s light, sweet soprano made her a beguiling Iris with real personality. Cupid suffered the loss of an aria but Bethany Horak-Hallett’s rich soprano shone. The tenor Rory Carver projected well as the Second Priest/First Augur and the remaining low voices – including Christopher Foster as Somnus, Jonathan Brown as Cadmus and Graeme Broadbent as the Chief Priest – carried off their roles with conviction. As Apollo announcing the birth of Bacchus, the baritone Jolyon Loy was a suave, commanding and suitably joyful presence.

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room

IOCO review of Rodelinda

News and Reviews

Review of Handel's Rodelinda

13 April 2018

Hats off to talented artistic director Julian Perkins for resurrecting the Cambridge Handel Opera Company, which had staged annual Handel productions from 1985 to 2013 in the historic university city. He plans to alternate operas by Handel with those of his contemporaries, and if this production of Rodelinda is anything to go by, audiences can look forward to historically informed and artistically rewarding productions in the coming years.

Simon Bejer has designed the production simply but effectively, entirely in blood red, black and white. Costumes are loosely early 17th-century – ruffs, doublet and hose, the staging minimal, but hung with red draperies. Sung in English, it is expertly accompanied from the pit by period instruments laid out as an 18th-century opera orchestra, with a harpsichord and bass instrument on each side of the pit, and conducted by Julian Perkins.

Alice Privett never disappoints as the faithful wife Rodelinda. Her opening lament for her, supposedly, dead husband Bertarido, is impressive in its rich, deep colours, and she excels both in the passionate anger required when resisting the advances of the usurper Grimoaldo  and in the more calm set-piece arias.

Her unwelcome suitor, Grimoaldo (tenor William Wallace), white-faced and weak minded, comes into his own in Act 2 when his anger at finding Rodelinda and Bertarido together brings forth vehement coloratura – the only time spontaneous applause was drawn from an otherwise rather reserved audience. His adviser Garibaldo is sung by baritone Nicholas Morris, who from the first has the ability to hold the stage with both his effective acting and his characterful voice. Ida Ränzlöv who sings ‘bad girl’ Eduige, dressed for the part in black vinyl skin-tight trousers and a slashed farthingale, enters into the role with almost comic effect, rolling the „R“ of Rodelinda scornfully and cheekily unlacing Unolfo’s doublet.

It is left till Act 1 Scene 2 before we hear a counter-tenor voice – that of Bertarido, in hiding, walking among the tombs. …William Towers soon captivates the audience with his beautifully controlled long notes, and his Act 2 aria ‘Nature’s voice replying’, each line echoed from the circle by recorders and flute, is beautifully accomplished. Tom Scott-Cowell, as Unolfo, has the other countertenor role and delights the audience with Act 2 aria ‘Daylight is dawning’ just before the interval.

For me, however, the musical high point of the opera was Rodelinda and Bertarido’s duet at the end of Act 2 ‘I embrace you’, movingly sung in their separate dungeons, with flawless ensemble and both voices blending seamlessly.

Back to the Previous Events page

Previous Events

Visit Handel’s Green Room

Handel's Green Room