Thomas Arne, Bampton Classical Opera

Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II, had married in 1736 but,
rebellious and alienated from his parents, when his wife became pregnant,
Frederick concealed the fact. At the last moment, the Princess of Wales was
rushed to St James’s Palace, where no preparations had been made, and
gave birth to a daughter, almost as soon as the King and Queen knew a
grandchild was on the way. The little girl was known as Augusta, Princess of
Brunswick, and for her third birthday, or rather one day later on 1 August
1740, her father arranged a grand entertainment in the garden of Cliveden
consisting of two masques and some pantomime scenes, all performed by the best
London professionals that money could buy. The entertainments were enjoyed by
such a throng of society guests that they had to be repeated on the following
night — when a rainstorm drove everyone indoors, and Alfred had
to be finished in the Hall.

In the eighteenth century, the characters and storyline of a masque would be
familiar to all with a knowledge of classical mythology. The early-eighteenth
century was a ‘classical age’, in which assumptions were seldom
challenged, and people believed that their way of life and artistic tastes were
not a passing phase but, in the words of the great English historian, G.M.
Trevelyan, “permanent habitations, the final outcome of reason and
experience. Such an age does not aspire to progress though it may in fact be
progressing, it regards itself not as setting out but as having arrived
…And therefore the men of this ‘classical’ age looked backed
with a sense of kinship to the far-off ancient world. The upper class regarded
the Greeks and Romans as honorary Englishmen, their precursors in liberty and

Thus, Alfred, ostensibly set in the distant ninth century and
telling the story of maurading, godless Danes who met their match in Alfred, a
scholarly and benevolent ruler, had significant contemporary relevance, obvious
no doubt to all of Frederick’s guests. For, just as the legendary King
Alfred sought refuge in a country refuge, from whence he launched the freeing
of his nation, so Frederick resided in his rural retreat, estranged from his
father, waiting for the day when his values of liberty and honour would prevail
and ‘free’ his nation.

At the time of Alfred’s composition, inventions in the masque
form were acceptable if they were fairly mild in character; sometimes they may
have been barely intentional, and thus Arne, though he transformed English
opera in the 1740s-60s, may scarcely have been conscious of his originality,
being more concerned to ‘recapture the past’ than to forge new
paths into the future.

In fact, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778) was the most important figure in
the world of English theatre music in the middle part of the eighteenth
century, fighting vehemently for the cause of native creativity at a time when
the fashion for foreign culture prevailed. With a brilliant gift for melody,
Arne was able to turn his hand to the whole range of theatre music, from
incidental music and comic ‘afterpieces’, to complex masques and opera
on the scale of those by his great rival, Handel.

Alfred has the innovation of both spoken dialogue and a historical
plot. At this time, James Thomas, the author of The Seasons, was
receiving an allowance from Frederick — much needed for only shortly
before he had been languishing in a debtors’ prison! Anxious to raise the
literary level of the masque, Arne found in Thomas a poet of merit. Arne may
well have been looking back to the Purcellian masque with his deployment of
spoken dialogue but at the same time, it may also have conveniently excused him
from the obligation to write ‘dramatic music’, in recognition that
his compositional gifts were primarily lyrical. In this performance by Bampton
Classical Opera, the text was narrated crisply by Bampton director Jeremy Gray;
the transitions between spoken and sung text were swift and wholly convincing,
effectively binding the individual numbers into a fluent narrative.

Originally Alfred and his wife, Eltruda, were non-singing parts; the airs
were sung by the two shepherds, Corin and his wife Emma, and by the Spirit,
sung originally by Mrs Arne — aka Cecilia Young, one of the
foremost sopranos of the age. Presented in a bewildering number of versions in
its day, textually Alfred is one of the most confused of all
eighteenth-century ‘operas’. Arne continued to revise and reshape
it, composing up to seventy numbers in all. Many of the revisions were
pragmatic: initially scored with great lavishness, it was subsequently
impossible to accommodate the work in any of the London playhouses, and
therefore economising modification was necessary. None of the music was
published for more than a decade after the first performance, and then only in
much altered form. Bampton Classical Opera first tackled the work in 1998,
giving what may have been the first fully-staged performance since the
eighteenth century. On this occasion, they presented excerpts from the 1753
version, in which the dialogue was reduced to a minimum.

Alfred is a stirring tale of Anglo-Saxon warfare and rustic love,
complete with ‘an offstage British victory of overwhelming
proportions’. The music may be unfamiliar, but it was pleasing to see
several Bampton ‘regulars’ return for this performance. The
dramatic focus and musical accuracy of Corin’s opening solo air,
‘Though to a desert Isle confin’d’, sung with confident
assurance by Mark Chaundy, flowed naturally to the Trio ‘Let not those
who love, complain’, in which the voices of Joana Seara, Serena Kay and
John-Colyn Gyeanty blended perfectly with the instrumental support. Having
recently performed the Count in Bampton’s 2010 The Marriage of
by Marcos Portugal, Gyeanty employed his flexibile, warm tenor with
admirable control in the eponymous hero’s beautiful air, ‘From the
Dawn of early Morning’, displaying an array of colours and dispatching
the rapid scalic runs with aplomb. Making effective use of pianissimo,
he shaped the phrases gracefully and projected the words clearly. As Edward
(performed in 1753 by the renowned castrato, Guadagni), Kay brought dramatic
energy to her air, ‘Vengeance, O come, inspire me!’, while Seara
delivered Eltruda’s ‘Gracious Heav’n, O hear me!’ with
precision and finesse. Ilona Domnich was a bright, clear shepherdess, Emma, and
also sang the Spirit’s air with directness and assurance, adeptly
capturing the mood of the situation.

‘Rule Britannia’ — a ‘Grand Ode in Honour of Great
Britain’ — ends the work. Dynamic instrumental playing from the
Bampton Classical Players accompanied King Alfred’s and Queen
Eltruda’s prayer that our shores be protected from foreign invasion, a
prayer which, for all its modern ‘vainglory’, expresses not
unreasonable sentiments for a constantly invaded island in the ninth century,
and had topical relevance for 1740. Brilliantly scored for oboes, bassoons,
trumpets, drums and strings, it was an overnight sensation on its first
performance, and was soon sung everywhere; in 1742 the full score was published
as an appendix to Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, a work which
was undoubtedly influenced by Sammartini’s Judgement of Paris
also given at Cliveden in the summer of 1740.

At the time it was felt that ‘masque’ was not the appropriate
category for Alfred, and it was later advertised as a serenata, an
opera, and even an oratorio. Similarly, while Arne’s The Judgement of
— an irreverent account of the famous mythological beauty
contest which led to the Trojan War — was also described as a masque when
first performed at Drury Lane on 12 March 1742, there is no spoken dialogue and
it is effectively a one-act opera for five soloists and chorus.

Bampton Classical Opera certainly made a strong case for its dramatic as
well as musical merits. Conductor Benjamin Bayl deftly captured the character
of the piece, inspiring vigorous playing from the period instrumental orchestra
and drawing out the distinctive woodwind colourings in particular numbers.
Tempi were well chosen and the recitatives sustained forward momentum.

Gyeanty’s even legato and sensitivity to the text were again in
evidence in Paris’s air, ‘I faint, I fall’, as he used
changes of pace and rich ornamentation to convey drama and emotion. Mark
Chaundy’s light voice and superb breath control aptly conveyed the swift
airiness of Mercury in ‘Fear not, mortal, none shall harm thee’;
and the two men enjoyed the joyful jauntiness of their duet, ‘Happy thou
of human race’.

Arne’s music for the three goddesses is nicely differentiated. Serena
Kay presented a powerful, athletic impression of Pallas in ‘O what joys
does conquest yield’, an elaborate, full-scale Italianate da
aria, which also drew fine playing from the oboes, trumpets and
drums. In contrast, Joana Seara emphasised the steadfastness of Juno in a
simple strophic air, ‘Let ambition fire the mind’. In Venus’s
‘Nature framed thee sure for Loving’, Ilona Domnich floated the
high notes sweetly, while the two violins enjoyed their dialogue and echo
effects. Venus’s first air, ‘Hither turn thee gentle swain’,
includes a delightful cello obbligato, here beautifully played by
Natasha Kraemer. It leads to an amusing ‘rivalry trio’ for the
three goddesses; Kay, Seara and Domnich clearly relished the gentle humour as
Pallas and Juno take turns to ironically adapt the first line of Venus’s
preceding air.

This may have been a concert performance, but the singers were uniformly
effective in conveying not just character but dramatic relationships and
momentum. Indeed, the stage directions, reproduced in the programme, describe
the moment when Paris sees the three goddesses, who then descend briskly from
the sky on mechanical contraptions — a useful reminder of the theatrical
origins of the work.

Once again, Bampton Classical Opera not only brought justly deserving but
little known repertoire to a highly appreciative audience’s attention,
but performed it with commitment, intelligence and significant musical
accomplishment. In so doing, the company made a strong and convincing case for
both the musical and the dramatic potential of these early English

Claire Seymour

* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social
: 3 (The Eighteenth Century), Pelican, pp.85-6.

image_description=Thomas Augustine Arne by Johann Zoffany [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Thomas Arne: Alfred (excerpts); The Judgement of Paris
product_by=Alfred — Alfred: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Eltruda, his queen: Joana Seara; Edward, his son: Serena Kay; Corin, a peasant: Mark Chaundy; Emma, his wife: Ilona Domnich; The Spirit: Ilona Domnich.

The Judgement of Paris — Mercury: Mark Chaundy; Paris, a shepherd: John-Colyn Gyeanty; Juno: Joana Seara; Pallas: Serena Kay; Venus: Ilona Domnich.

Bampton Classical Opera. The Bampton Classical Players. Conductor: Benjamin Bayl. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 12th February 2011.
product_id=Above: Thomas Augustine Arne by Johann Zoffany [Source: Wikipedia]