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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

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