Following on from the The English Concert’s performance of Hercules last week, the London Handel Festival returned to business with this concert performance of Semele, which premiered in February 1744, the year before Hercules. It’s based on Congreve’s libretto which was intended for and indeed set by John Eccles, his version originally due to be performed in 1707. Due to political machinations and theatrical duplicity (actors getting uppity and ruining it for everybody, years before Equity was set up) the opera was laid aside. Handel is probably unlikely to have seen this version, the autograph of which is now held at London’s Royal College of Music.
The original cast included John Beard and Elisabeth Duparc as Jupiter and Semele respectively, both well-established singers in Handel’s retinue. As with Hercules, the opera was intended to cash in on the successes that Handel had lately experienced with oratorio. However, just as with Hercules, this did not please Londoners at the time, either by not being moralistic enough (as the oratorios are) or by not having been sung in Italian; the arbiters of taste demanding this could be the only language for opera. Nice to see that even when Brits are trying not to be xenophobic and embrace the art of another culture, they still manage to be, well, xenophobic and in this instance discounted anything that was being written in France or Germany at the time. Plus ça change…
The opera was not intended for staged performance by Handel but in modern times it has been staged at English National Opera (then called Sadler’s Wells Opera) in 1970, with several restagings since, and the Royal Opera House in 1982.
If you’re not familiar with your classical mythology, Semele is a princess of Thebes with a penchant for the highlife. Although betrothed to Athamas, she’s got a bit of a thing for Jupiter who whisks her off on a mighty eagle to enjoy ’endless pleasure, endless love…above’. If you are going to be the plaything of a god, the trick is not to be found out by his jealous wife! (or if we’re going to be properly moral, don’t go there in the first place). Juno fools the vain Semele into demanding of Jupiter that he appear in his godlike form, which naturally vaporises the presumptuous mortal. Thankfully, Jupiter rescues the unborn Bacchus from her womb and society is off on the happy path to G&Ts. It’s a misogynistic, moralistic but slightly sexy warning to not use sexual wiles to seek advancement, you’ll end up with burnt fingers.
The London Handel Orchestra and Singers, lead from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings performed enthusiastically and with a lot of spirit. The orchestra opened with a sprightly bounce and a forthright rendition of the ensuing fugue. Throughout there was a clear sense that the orchestra were there supporting the voices rather than trying to become the main attraction. That is, except for Ben Hoffnung on timpani, who was having lots of fun giving them a good thump and enjoying his role as the evening’s many claps of thunder. In contrast to Italian opera seria, we were spared endless secco recitative and Handel wrote some wonderfully evocative accompagnati depicting everything from the rotation of the heavenly spheres and the descent of Jupiter’s eagle to snatch Semele away to the movement of the dragons guarding Semele’s love nest, all keenly drawn by the ensemble.
The chorus have many fine numbers, sensibly bolstered with four oboes, and performed them with a wide range of dynamics, injecting life into the roles they play, from priests to zephyrs. The dramatic end of the first scene as the altar fires were variously extinguished or relit at the whim of the gods were expressive and a welcome change of pace. They revelled in the sensual ‘Now Love that everlasting boy’, rightly severe in ‘Oh terror and astonishment’ and ended on the joyous ‘Happy, happy shall we be’ celebrating the birth of Bacchus and no doubt looking forward to celebratory beverages.
For the soloists it was very much a game of two halves with the first part comprising Act 1 being sadly soporific. Part two, containing the remaining two acts was much stronger but the momentum was not sustained and the evening felt longer than it needed to be, with a few arias played at a more relaxed tempo than they warranted.
George Humphreys as Cadmus, and later Somnus, was light but well-toned, being the strongest singer in Act 1 although sadly not allocated an aria. As Somnus he was suitably somnolent. With its undulating strings and treading bassline ‘Leave me, loathsome light’ was a pleasure to hear. Score it for viol consort and you have ‘Sfere amiche’ from Steffani’s Niobe, not too far-fetched if you recall that Steffani was attached to the court in Hanover in the early eighteenth century. ‘More sweet is that air’ was sung with a Purcellian swagger and clarity of pronunciation.
As the luckless lover Athamas, Robin Blaze sang with a small voice through the recitatives, quiet to the point that low notes could not be heard. Even in ‘Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare’ with its accompaniment reduced to unison violins and bassline, his voice didn’t travel far. It seemed ironic that he sang of ‘Your tuneful voice’ when he sounded like a rather old school countertenor and very hooty, particularly so in the rapid note spinning of ‘Despair no more’, which otherwise was his most secure singing.
Very much taking the role of embittered parish spinster, Semele’s sister Ino was sang by Ewa Gubanska who struggled with clearly pronouncing and projecting English. It did make the scenario of Juno, sung by Louise Innes, taking on the form of Ino in Act 3 to trick Semele into making untoward demands unconvincing: one would have expected Semele to pick up on the fact that her sister was now singing in clearly clipped English. However, her characterisation was effective in the old-fashioned sounding ‘Turn, hopeless lover, turn your eye’ with its cello solo. Although there was a slip in the cello intonation and quiet singing, it was a moving lament for Ino.
Similarly, it was only thanks to the provision of the libretto in the programme that allowed comprehension of Iris’ ‘There, from mortal cares retiring’, sung by Maria Valdmaa despite an otherwise clear, melodious voice. As Juno, Innes displayed a good plummet to low register at ‘I swear – by Hell’ and though ‘Hence, hence’ was not overly forceful but had character.
Semele was taken by Anna Devin who sang with mixed results. She has some delicate top notes and she did sustain a not unpleasant, clear top note in ‘Myself I shall adore’, gratifying the older gentlemen in the audience who chortled lustily at her flirtatious manner. There was some limpid singing in ‘Let not another moment’, her voice restrained but with a bit of a wobble on held notes. ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ was salaciously sung, Devin taking care with the turns and trills albeit with an anachronistic sounding cadenza. Her voice could often be a bit pinched at the top of range. In the second half her projection was better in ‘With fond desiring’ but ‘My racking thoughts’ felt sadly emotionless and by the time we got to ‘No. no, I’ll take no less’ the role and its many runs seems to have taken its toll on her stamina.
In contrast, Rupert Charlesworth sang securely with stylish and effortless sounding Handelian singing. The rapidity of his vocal line in ‘I must with speed amuse her’ confidently matched the text. His tone was clear and in the delights of ‘Where’er you walk’ you could almost hear the turtledoves cooing in Arcadia. He well portrayed the ardent lover in ‘Come to my arms, my lovely fair’ and he proved to be a highlight of the evening.
Despite some individual fine moments and the contribution of the chorus, this performance lacked pace and energy, a rather staid rendition of what can be a saucy little number.