In the aftermath of the Oscars, Leonardo DiCaprio knows only too well that great art and skill may not always secure the golden prize, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a prize is not deserved. In 1701, Daniel Purcell wrote his Judgement of Paris for a competition to encourage the development of English opera, created by Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax and his friends. Purcell’s entry came an inglorious third and has been largely neglected ever since. But in the rescuing hands of Spiritato!, the Rodolfus Choir and a strong team of soloists in this celebratory performance at St John’s Smith Square, Purcell’s opera sparkled at us across the silent centuries with joyful conviction, playfulness and verve.

Ashley Riches © Debbie Scanlon & Ben Cole
Ashley Riches
© Debbie Scanlon & Ben Cole

The most exciting thing about this long-lost opera is its natural dramatic potential. Even in a concert performance, the piece moves with kinetic energy. Characters are well and distinctively drawn, musically and lyrically; intervening short “symphonies” between arias give ample opportunities for clever staging and articulate acting. In short, it’s a director’s dream. Even while watching it, I found myself imagining what Glyndebourne might do with this, or what Grange Park might achieve or how good it could be at Grimeborn. Wherever it resurfaces next, this opera deserves to join the canon; it’s beautiful, short, skilfully made and above, all, fun.

The myth of The Judgement of Paris is well known, yet Congreve’s libretto (which I was very glad to find thoughtfully printed in full in the programme) never bores, making the most of the amusing gender dynamics of the plot, and exulting in beautifully turned phrases. Daniel Purcell, in turn, set Congreve’s words to music so well that his English lifts naturally off the page into song (something some composers are still struggling with, more than three hundred years later). An atmosphere of wit pervades, with simple, stylish tricks allowing the vocal line to echo the sense of the words closely: a “lowly swain” is sung on a descending scale, Paris’ cry of “O Ravishing Delight” explodes with breathtakingly virtuosic coloratura. The opening Symphony is uplifting, filled with a sense of fresh air and the mountains, because we’re on Mount Ida. Duets reflect each other; the goddesses’ trios twist around themselves; there’s not much to surprise, but in a sense, it is the very knowingness of this opera which is its chief charm. Purcell presents characters we recognise, doing exactly what we expect them to do, in the very best way he can. The result is somehow refreshing to a modern eye. Purcell’s ideas seem packed with natural exuberance and his uncompromised characters and lines seem bright and gleaming, rather than one-sided.

While it is always lovely to see the silhouette of a period orchestra, Spiritato! are fascinating to watch in themselves. This is an orchestra whose members genuinely look like they’re each privately lost in their own enjoyment of the piece at all times yet, by some miracle, stay together. For The Judgement of Paris, Julian Perkins was at the helm, but for the two shorter pieces (the Act II Symphony from The Indian Queen by Henry Purcell, Daniel’s more famous brother or cousin according to your scholarship, and Godfrey Finger’s Suite from The Humours of the Age) Spiritato! were devoutly alone with their music, playing with total commitment and fervour, and increasing lyricism as the evening went on. Kinga Ujszászi, the first violin, seemed to be a natural leader, playing with an assurance which drew the eye irresistibly.

We were treated to a fine company of young and talented singers, whose diction and delivery are markedly clear. Nick Pritchard was a revelation as Paris. His voice is soft and supple, yet strong enough to cope with some seriously demanding music (such as his ecstatic greeting of the Goddesses) with seeming ease. As we moved through the opera, I only found myself increasingly impressed by Pritchard, particularly by his control over his voice. Ciara Hendrick was fabulous as Juno, with a lovely clean sense of line, playful characterisation and an immediate stage presence as the Queen of the Gods. Hendrick sings with an infectious sense of joy and enthusiasm: a compelling watch.

Amy Freston was not quite so assertive as Pallas, but coped well with challenging music, and communicated a sense of the intoxicating excitement which Purcell gives to the Goddess of Victory. Augusta Hebbert achieved a gorgeous sound as Venus, with wonderful softness, accuracy and tone in her voice. Her acting was less assured, but flowed naturally from whatever she was singing, so if she continues to follow her instincts, this will only improve. Ashley Riches was a brilliant Mercury, with a deliciously mischievous sense of timing, playing the Messenger with humour and intelligence. The Rodolfus Choir presented a warm, confident sound in their short choruses, which add colour and texture to the opera overall.

For sheer dramatic potential, let alone the beauty of its music, Daniel Purcell’s The Judgement of Paris is a rare find. Hopefully, this recording will ensure it will not be lost again, even though it didn’t win a prize three hundred years ago. As DiCaprio would no doubt agree, prizes aren’t everything. Performance is.

****1