(Brook Street Band at St George’s Hanover Square, 6 April 2018)
Some of you may remember that I saw Thomas Arne’s pastoral comedy The Judgement of Paris two summers ago, in the beautiful rectory garden at Bampton. This production for the London Handel Festival may have lacked the bucolic surroundings, but it made up for it in the quality of the cast, which marshalled a real dream team of young British singers. Yet the evening had a surprise in store: a bit of audience interaction, which pitted Arne directly against Handel and treated us to some highlights from the older composer’s Semele. Both The Judgement of Paris and Semele were based on libretti by William Congreve, whose sprightly, slightly rakish poetry still raises smiles.
Before I get lost in the foibles of jealous Olympians, I must draw your attention to the lovely illustration I’ve used at the top of this post. It’s a silkscreen print of The Judgement of Paris by the New York artist Galia Bernstein, who has graciously given me permission to use it here, and you can find out more about her work here. I thought this scene captured the rather playful quality of Congreve’s libretto to a T; because, although the Judgement actually has pretty dire consequences (abduction of Helen; Trojan War; mass death on all sides; etc., etc.), it’s hard to take this mortal-judges-divine-beauty-contest seriously. Arne himself treads a fine line between ambitious grandeur and humour in his music. The overture begins with a monumental symphony which clearly has aspirations, and yet which gives way to a charming bevy of pastoral flutes and to bubbly strings which evoke gambolling lambs and all the simplicity of Paris’s rural idyll.
Alas, idylls don’t last, and young Paris (sung here by Ed Lyon) is about to be disturbed by Mercury, messenger of the gods (Anthony Gregory), who comes bearing alarming orders. Paris has to decide which of three goddesses is the fairest: regal Juno (Gillian Ramm), proud Pallas (Susanna Fairbairn) or sultry Venus (Soraya Mafi). The rest, as they say, is history. Or myth, at least. Congreve pads out the scant action with arias from all and sundry, as Paris moves from his initial panic (‘I faint, I faint, oh take me hence!‘) to enjoying his task rather too much (‘And since a gay Robe an ill Shape may disguise, When each is undrest, I’ll judge of the best, For ’tis not a Face that must carry the Prize‘). But Juno and Pallas realise all too quickly how the wind’s blowing and their posturing degenerates into a rather undignified tussle in the wonderful trio, ‘Turn to me, for I am she…‘.
The roles were perfectly cast among the singers: Gregory’s clear and ringing tenor made him a perfect messenger, while Ed Lyon conveyed Paris’s shift from overwhelmed sheep-herder to eager voyeur with dramatic flair. I have to admit he was one of the reasons I wanted to see this, having enjoyed his performance in Ormindo so much, and I was glad to see that his voice really is as good as I’d remembered: strong, powerful and yet handled with effortless grace. The three ladies were equally well suited to their roles: Ramm sleek and refined as Juno, while Susanna (my other and more important reason for going) was a dauntless, feisty Pallas. I loved her solo aria, in which she tries to persuade Paris with offers of martial victory, accompanied by fanfares, drums and the definite odd hint of Arne’s most famous piece, Rule Britannia, all topped with a brilliant high note at the end. And then there was Venus, who really couldn’t have been anyone other than Soraya Mafi, pulling out all the stops as she did with her dazzling Cleopatra. With 1940s forces’-sweetheart hair and a blue gown cut just so, this Venus wasn’t going to be sharing the limelight with anyone, and Mafi’s voice really is a dream.
Now, the reason I haven’t given this a star rating is because the second half of the evening turned it into less of an opera and more of a recital (and I don’t rate recitals). During the first half, the audience voted on slips for their favourite arias from Handel’s Semele. These were counted during the interval and the top five were performed in the second half. In this way, we could see how two composers from different generations (Handel older, Arne younger) tackled Congreve’s poetry, and how Arne’s generation used Handel’s music as a leaping-off point for their own, proto-classical style of music. I don’t think The Judgement of Paris will displace Semele in my heart any time soon, but then I’m just a bit of an old buffer.
It’s odd, because I didn’t fall in love with Semele when I first saw it, but its music has grown on me and the second half offered up a really sparkling bouquet of arias. The conductor and master-of-ceremonies, John Andrews, arranged the arias so that we batted back and forth between sopranos and tenors, and the audience were all eager to see which pieces had come out at the top of the chart. (To be fair, I wonder whether Andrews and the band had prepared everything in advance: surely these arias were the only likely outcome?) However. That’s me being cynical. First up was Gillian Ramm again, having changed into resplendent slinky red sequins for Semele’s aria Endless pleasure. This allowed her to be more playful and spirited than she had been as sober Juno: she channelled some of Semele’s frivolity and sang with fine control.
Next up was Anthony Gregory as Jupiter, with Come to my arms, my lovely fair. This is a romantic aria which suited his supple, clear voice very well. Andrews had clearly matched arias and singers with great care. Then came Susanna, with O sleep, why dost thou leave me, accompanied only by a harpsichord and cello and – yes, she is a friend of mine, but I say this honestly – it was gorgeous. I always love hearing voices almost unaccompanied and she sang with such delicacy that I felt myself listening with every nerve; breathing almost seemed to spoil that suspended grace. Lovely. She, in turn, gave way to Ed Lyon and here I thought I had it pegged. It had to be Where’er you walk, didn’t it? I’d voted for it and presumably wasn’t the only one. We hadn’t had it yet and this was the last tenor aria. So I was mildly shocked when Lyon proceeded to sing I must with speed amuse her. Of course, he did it brilliantly. This urbane Jupiter invited us into his problems, frowning, hands in pockets, as he wondered how to stop Semele from asking for the impossible: immortality. (Perhaps the song should be subtitled: ‘Quick! Stop that woman thinking!’) Of course it was excellent. But I still felt just the teeniest bit forlorn.
Soraya Mafi capped things off and here I’d predicted right: it was Myself I shall adore and, again, she absolutely nailed it. Aria and singer were a match made in heaven. It’s a fiendishly difficult piece, with notes flickering and glittering all over the scale, but Mafi sang it with acrobatic panache and made it all look immensely easy. Just to underline her talents, she finished with a cadenza which glittered like light on a glass chandelier. It was brilliant. But… what was this? Andrew quietened down the applause and explained that actually we hadn’t heard the aria which had been the most popular – ‘Aha!‘ I thought – and so Where’er you walk was performed as an encore, with all singers taking part. But the first verse was Ed Lyon’s alone and that was well worth waiting for. I’d been hoping to hear him sing it all evening and, to be honest, the combination of his rich tenor and that gorgeous music made me go just a little bit warm and fuzzy inside. Heavenly. (And guess what? You can hear him singing it too! Ooh. Goosebumps.)
A fun evening – a creative way of staging a concert and ultimately a nice way of highlighting Congreve’s role as librettist and poet. I was, of course, very happy to see Susanna in action again; and Lyon and Mafi absolutely lived up to the high regard I have for them based on previous performances. Let’s hope we get the chance to see all these singers in many more things over the next few months…
By the way, finding images to illustrate this post was more amusing than usual. Google Ed Lyon. You’ll see what I mean. Under the circumstances, I think I was very restrained.