Thomas Arne’s early musical works – including ‘The Sheep-Shearing’, ‘The Wild-Goose Chase’, and ‘The Temple of Dullness’ – would never have earned him fame.
And though most people know him as the composer of ‘Rule Britannia’, that was just a detail in the catalogue of his later achievements. His music-drama ‘Alfred’ – of which this formed the closing chorus – was one of ninety stage works with which he asserted his dominance as eighteenth-century London’s most prolific lyric composer.
Last year, under their artistic director Ian Page, the Classical Opera Company presented a version of Arne’s ‘Artaxerxes’ in which Japanese aesthetics were harnessed to music which was English through and through. To mark his tercentenary, they are now performing ‘Alfred’ itself, and making up for lack of scenery with a narrator (Michael Maloney) plus their own orchestra, whose period instruments echo brilliantly in this sensitive acoustic.
‘We are in marshy countryside, and Britain is at war...’ Humble peasant Corin (tenor Anthony Gregory) and his homely wife Emma (soprano Mary Bevan, heavily pregnant and looking her part) extol the charms of their bucolic existence. Leaning pensively against a tree is the disguised Alfred, who offers up a patriotic prayer of extraordinary beauty, since tenor Thomas Hobbs has the most wonderfully expressive sound. We meet Alfred’s son Edward in the shape of countertenor Andrew Radley, whose timbre has a juicy masculinity, and Alfred’s Queen Eltruda, sung by the South African soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon. The cast is completed by mezzo Kitty Whately (yes, on opening night father Kevin was in the stalls) whose big aria of love and loss is exquisitely sung, and by soprano Emma Morwood, who both sounds and looks like the airy Spirit she impersonates.
This work is a mere watercolour compared with Handel’s rich oil-paintings, but in its honest English way it has immense charm, particularly as these young singers deliver it. The flamboyance of the countertenor arias reflects the fact that the castrato for whom they were written was also one of Handel’s favourites; Arne recomposed the second act to employ some temporarily available virtuosi, thus allowing all the singers to take wing. When ‘Rule Britannia’ comes, it’s with a down-home sweetness you’d never expect from its flogging-to-death at the Proms.