About a Boy: Daniel Purcell’s The Judgement of Paris (1701) Back

In rescuing Daniel Purcell’s (c.1670-1717) delightful short semi-opera, The Judgement of Paris (1701) from canonical oblivion, the Spiritato! ensemble, under the musical direction of Julian Perkins, has done lovers of baroque music a great service. Composed for a competition ‘for the Encouragement of [English] MUSICK’ in 1701, this ‘all-sung Masque’, set to a libretto by William Congreve (1670-1729), was first performed in the spring of that year but has since been forgotten – like the music of Daniel Purcell’s contemporaries, it was eclipsed by the greater fame and popularity of his elder cousin Henry (1659-1659), and a growing taste among English audiences for the Italian style. Short, sweet, and thoroughly engaging, it reflects a concerted attempt in the first years of the eighteenth century to revolutionise English opera, as Spiritato! trumpeter William Russell explains in his programme notes. And although it only earned Purcell an ignominious third place – amid a scandal that prompted his fellow entrant Gottfried Finger’s (c.1660-1730) embittered departure from England –The Judgement of Paris is a delight to listen to. Having come last, Finger complained indignantly that ‘he thought he was to compose music for men, and not for boys’. The ancient story of Paris and the three goddesses is of course all about boys, especially in Congreve’s version, where one particular boy dreams about the moment ‘When each is undressed’. But Purcell’s true star is the music, which in the absence of any dance movements or other expository devices, and under pressure to move ‘Restoration Spectacular’ away from the theatre and towards the opera house, had to take over the task of conveying both plot and character in purely musical terms.   

It is always exciting to witness the modern premiere of a long-forgotten work, and although running to just over one hour, The Judgement of Paris did not disappoint. The evening’s programme got off to a rather conventional start with Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) ‘Symphony’ from Act 2 of The Indian Queen (1695), which Daniel completed upon his cousin’s death, and incidental music from The Humours of the Age (1701) by the unfortunate Gottfried Finger. His more energetic style, characterised by a wonderful sequence of rising semiquavers in the ‘Overture’, as well as a beguiling duet of harpsichord (Nicolás Mendoza) and bass viol (the superb Henrik Persson), gave occasion to a solid orchestral performance by Spiritato!. If somewhat lacking in spirit in the first ‘Symphony’, they fully and quite literally found their feet here – not least due to lead violinist Kinga Ujszászi’s plucky interventions – fully deserving of the enthusiastic audience response at the end.

Founded in 2008, the ensemble seeks to foster and showcase a new generation of period-instrument performers. In cooperation with the fabulous Rodolfus Choir, which enriched the evening’s performance with a beautifully judged and exquisitely tuned performance, The Judgement of Paris constitutes their most recent project and includes a recording for Resonus Classics, as well as a new edition of the opera by William Russell. A straightforward rendering of the classical myth, it recounts the well-known story of the humble shepherd Paris who is unexpectedly called upon to decide which of the three goddesses – Juno (Saturnia), Diana (Pallas), or Venus – is the most beautiful. Hopelessly out of his depth, ‘Confus’d and o’erwhelm’d with a Torrent of Light’, he is variously tempted by promises of power, the glorious spoils of martial victory, and the delights of love – in whose favour he eventually casts his vote.

The vocal performances were of the highest standard throughout. Bass-baritone Ashley Riches gave an irrepressibly comic turn as Mercury, the messenger of the gods, whose task it is to spring the weighty news on the unsuspecting shepherd boy. Armed with a lovingly crafted golden apple (which later hilariously found its way into the auditorium as a makeshift bridal bouquet of sorts) and a voice like melting chocolate, Riches had the audience by turns hanging on his lips and in giggles. As Paris, tenor Nick Pritchard carried considerable responsibility. The part requires virtuosity, agility, and the dramatic skill to sustain a number of beautiful lyrical passages often eerily reminiscent of Henry Purcell, which is perhaps not surprising given the cousins’ musical collaboration. Pritchard seemed equally at home in both registers, with particularly memorable performances in his arias ‘O Ravishing Delight’ (which borrows quite heavily from ‘Dido’s Lament’) and ‘Distracted I turn’ (which at the time reminded me a lot of ‘What Power art thou?’ from King Arthur). Slightly marred only by the occasional lack of lustre in the high notes, this was a fine and often courageous performance.

The three female performers offered singing of an equally superior quality: mezzo soprano Ciara Hendrick as Juno, who arrived on stage to the awe-inspiring sounds of a genuine thunder machine, and sopranos Amy Freston and August Hebbert as Pallas and Venus gave three altogether stunning performances. Appropriately for the winner of this mother of all beauty contests, Venus’s persistent love song sticks in the mind most readily. Her final aria, ‘Gentle Shepherd’, is realised with subtle charm. Seductively accompanied by woodwinds and harp, Hebbert gave a performance of great intricacy and allure. Freston and Hendrick’s supple yet cleverly nuanced portrayals of Pallas and a decidedly imperial and no less imperious Juno provided a perfect foil for the overwhelming sweetness of Venus. Looking towards the Italian da capo tradition of the later eighteenth century in rousing arias like ‘Awake, awake!’, as indicated in the programme notes, and admirably supported by Spiritato! trumpeters William Russell and Russell Gilmour, Freston’s feisty goddess of purity and war radiated with self-assurance and no small amount of spiky charm. In her slightly smaller role, Hendrick managed both regality and elegance, conveying both on a crystal-clear yet pleasing timbre.

The final ‘Grand Chorus’, which in pronouncing that ‘The Queen of Love, is Queen of Beauty Cround’ mobilises the joint efforts of soloists, choir, and orchestra, ends on a particularly infectious surging high, sweeping up even the two losers in a rousing affirmation of what music in general and a new kind of all-sung English opera in particular could achieve. It is to Spiritato!, director Julian Perkins, the Rodolfus Choir, and the soloists’ particular credit to have done the same for at least two of those composers who not only lost out to John Wheldon’s setting of The Judgement of Paris in the 1701 competition, but who subsequently lost out to history. Unfortunately, Gottfried Finger’s entry is no longer extant. But if Daniel Purcell’s light-hearted, entertaining, and thoroughly enchanting version is anything to go by, we could do much worse than to restore the first decade of the eighteenth century to its rightful place in the history of English opera.  

The Judgement of Paris was performed by Spiritato! and the Rodolfus Choir on March 5th 2014, coinciding with their recent CD release.