Now first choice for this tale of sex and power – put out the ‘House Full’ signs
Performed “in the manner of an oratorio” (this was Lent 1744), Handel’s tragi-comedy of lust and ambition was far too depraved for contemporaries like Charles Jennens, who contemptuously dismissed it as “a baudy opera”. (A friend countered by dubbing it a “Bawdatorio”.) Today, of course, Semele is, with Giulio Cesare – another uninhibited celebration of the power of sex – the Handel work most likely to fill an opera house. Of a handful of previous recordings, none was entirely satisfying, though Gardiner’s 1981 Erato set might have been if had not cut around 40 minutes of music. Which makes this new version – complete save for an aria for Cupid that Handel later pilfered for Hercules – all the more welcome.
Christian Curnyn understands the unique tinta of this gorgeous score, and directs his spruce period band with a nice blend of nonchalant elegance and dramatic energy. Tempi are shrewdly judged, rhythms light and supple, and recitatives tumble inevitably into arias. The tragic denouement in Act 3 has due weight and intensity, whether in the tenderly inflected accompanied recitatives for Jupiter and Semele, or the awed chorus of Thebans after the heroine’s incineration. As at the English National Opera, Rosemary Joshua, radiant of tone, dazzling in coloratura, makes Semele far more than an over-sexed airhead. She is trills ethereally in “The morning lark”, distils a drowsy, erotic languor in “O†sleep, why dost thou leave me?”, and ornaments her “mirror” aria, “Myself I shall adore”, with dizzy glee. She is imploring and fiery by turns in her exchanges with Jupiter, and brings real pathos to the haunting siciliano “Thus let my thanks be paid” and her sublime death scene. As Jupiter, Richard Croft fields a honeyed, sensuous tone (heard to advantage in a seductive “Where’re you walk”) and formidable agility, though he could learn a thing or two about diction from Gardiner’s Anthony Rolfe-Johnson.
Like Handel himself, Curnyn assigns the virago Juno and Semele’s gentle sister Ino to the same singer. Hilary Summers, a true, deep contralto, characterises both roles well, though in sheer bitchiness her Juno yields to Della Jones (Gardiner) and Marilyn Horne, on the variably cast DG recording conducted by John Nelson (where Kathleen Battle’s ultra-knowing, heavy-lidded Semele may be more to your taste than mine). Brindley Sherratt, with his oaky bass, offers vivid, witty cameos as Cadmus and Somnus, while Stephen Wallace sings Athamas’s arias with smooth tone and a nimble florid technique, though a suspicion remains that the role lies a bit low for him. With excellent recorded sound and balance, and an informative essay from David Vickers, this becomes a clear first choice for an ever-enticing work.
-- Richard Wigmore, Gramophone [1/2008]
Alive to the turns of the drama, pointed with panache.
I purposely do not include in the title above any description of what Semele is. The box for this set describes it as “A musical theatre entertainment in three acts based on a libretto by William Congreve”. This is certainly helpful, but ignores the fact that the first performance was given “after the manner of an oratorio” rather than as an opera. It is certainly not an oratorio but it is not certain that Handel expected it to be performed as an opera. There have indeed been many stage productions in recent years, although few that I have seen have added much to what can be seen in the mind’s eye in a good concert performance. It is this aspect that is the greatest strength of this recording. Although the soloists, with one crucial exception, are probably not the best to be heard on record, there is a real sense that all are strongly aware of the dramatic situations. They interact and strongly characterize their roles especially in the many accompanied recitatives and in the quartet and duets. As the libretto is not only in English this makes listening to this set like following an absorbing drama rather than the vocal divertissement that some recordings make of Handel’s dramatic works.
Another distinguishing characteristic of this performance is that it is complete, or at least contains everything performed at the first performance. That means that the short but delightful aria for Cupid in Act 2 – “Come, zephyrs, come” – is elided as Handel himself did for that performance. A pity that it was not included as an Appendix but it is good to have so much else that is often omitted, even if the sub-plot concerning Ino and Athamas does hold up Act 1 and comes as something of an anti-climax at the end.
None of the cast is inadequate, but Rosemary Joshua in the title role is superb, with exactly the right vocal colour and the ability to surmount all the vocal difficulties with apparent comfort and with a smile in the voice. Most of the other singers take more than one part. Hilary Summers seems at first somewhat colourless as Ino in Act 1, but it becomes clear that this is deliberate characterization when she enters with a wholly different kind of articulation and phrasing in Act 2 as Juno. She may lack the sheer contralto power of such singers as Della Jones as Juno but she shows that she understands what the fundamental character of the role is. Very soon I found myself enjoying her performance for what it is rather than regretting what it lacks. Similar considerations apply to Brindley Sherratt as Somnus and the pompous Cadmus. I am less happy about Richard Croft. He is always aware of the dramatic situation and makes Jupiter a more interesting character than has been the case on some other recordings. On the other hand his tone sounds somewhat tight and his singing lacks much in the way of charm. The other singers and the chorus are never less than adequate.
I suspect that much of the success of the performance is due to the efforts of Christian Curnyn and his fine period instrument orchestra. They are as alive as any of the singers to the turns of the drama, and point it with panache. It is this sense of a dramatic whole that is the key to this performance. Given that this is arguably the most interesting dramatically of all Handel’s dramatic works, this recording plays to that strength. Even if you have another recording of Semele this is worth hearing for the way that it presents the work as a dramatic whole.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International