…commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment

Opera Today, 20 February 2011

The first performance of Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred took place at Clivedon House on the Thames near Maidenhead, in August 1740.

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 culture.”*

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 seria 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 Figaro 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 Paris — 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 capo 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 ‘operas’.

Claire Seymour