Saturday, 14 March 2015

Semele at the London Handel Festival

Anna Devin
Anna Devin
Handel Semele; Devin, Charlesworth, Innes, Eubanska, Valdmaa, Humphreys, cond: Cummings; London Handel Festival at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 09 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Dazzlingly opening to the 2015 London Handel Festival

The 2015 London Handel Festival is upon us and it opened in fine style on Tuesday 10 March 2015 with a performance of Handel's Semele at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Orchestra and London Handel Singers with Anna Devin in the title role and Rupert Charlesworth as Jupiter, Louise Innes as Juno, Ewa Gubanska as Ino, Maria Valdmaa as Iris and George Humphreys as Cadmus and Somnus.

Rupert Charlesworth - photo Paul Kolien
Rupert Charlesworth - photo Paul Kolien
Handel wrote Semele for concert performance and though it is popular to stage it, it works very well in concert form. The audience in 1744 did not really know what to make of it. In his Italian operas Handel showed himself interested in using their rather more mixed style as compared to the perfections of Metastasio. So it is not surprising that William Congreve's libretto, written in 1705-1706 for John Eccles, appealed with its flexibility of structure and the way arias take the action forward. In fact in her article in the programme book, Ruth Smith speculates that Handel may have seen Eccles' score (written but never performed).

The advantage of a London Handel Festival performance is that we heard the whole work complete (around 170 minutes of music), something that might not be desirable in a stage performance.

Laurence Cummings and the orchestra (slightly beefed up, with four oboes and two bassoons), launched into a brisk and brilliant account of the overture. Throughout Cummings' spèeds were lively to fast, but this did not seem to phase either his players or his singers, and the more lyrical moments were given due space.

Festival performances provide a nice focus for previous winners of the London Handel Singing Competition and this was on exception. Rupert Charlesworth won both the First Prize and the Audience Prize in 2013, Ewa Gubanska won the First Prize in 2014, while Maria Valdmaa won Second Prize and the Audience Prize in 2014.
Handel wrote the work to offer a striking double role to mezzo-soprano Esther Young with her singing both Juno and Ino, Semele's sister, though the London Handel Festival chose to separate them with Louise Innes singing Juno and Ewa Gubanska as Ino.

On stage it is common to play Semele almost as a comedy, but in concert the true semi-seria nature of the work came over. But that is not to say that there were not comic delights along the way. All singers were very alert to the vibrancy of the words and the richness, and comic potential of Handel's writing.

Anna Devin was ravishing as Semele. Slightly knowing without ever lapsing into caricature, she combined strong technique with a lovely sense of character, so that this Semele was real. From the first notes of Endless Pleasure we were able to admire the evenness of her passage-work and the beauty and richness of her tone. She has a surprisingly luscious timbre, and is clearly much more than the soubrette that Semele can be portrayed as. In Myself I Shall Adore the sentiments were entirely understandable.

Jupiter is vocally absent from the first act but then he swans in with act two, giving two of the shows finest numbers, Lay your doubts and fears, and Where e'er you walk. Rupert Charlesworth did not disappoint. He has a lovely lyric voice with a hint of strength too, and a fine sense of line. Tone, demeanour and diction brought out a hint of foppish aristocrat in his portrayal which helped reinforce the idea that the story might have been seen as a satire on Lord Middlesex (who ran a rival opera company) and his mistress, or George II and his mistress. But Jupiter isn't all pleasure loving fop and his final accompagnato saw Charlesworth finely expressive indeed.

Polish born Ewa Gubanska made an attractive Ino, her light lyric tone reinforcing the character's youth. She had a clear feel for Handel's music and in the duet Prepare then, ye immortal choir, she blended ravishingly with Anna Devin. Unlike a number of previous non-native English speakers performing at previous festivals, Gubanska is not London trained and this showed somewhat in her sung English.

Louise Innes as Juno was perhaps slightly more serious in the role than some, which is no bad thing indeed. But she clearly took great delight in the words, made all the more telling by the great moments not being telegraphed too far ahead. This was subtle comedy. Juno's jealousy, though comic, was a real emotion. Technically she was suitably assured and her final air, Above measure is the pleasure, was a complete delight.

Estonian soprano Maria Valdmaa made a poised Iris, singing with firm bright tone, a nicely knowing air and fine clear English. George Humphreys was a notable Cadmus, bringing out the drama in the important accompagnatos which Handel gives the character. And as Somnus he sang with the right sort of orotund tone and sleepy charm.

Singing the work uncut, the principal benefactor was the Athamas of Robin Blaze, as the character's arias are those often cut. Blaze sang with bright tone and a sense of vibrancy which brought the character, not the most dramatically important, to life. And he got the last word with the aria Despair no more shall wound me, before the final chorus. One of the delights of Semele is its ensembles, with two duets (Semele and Ino, Juno and Somnus), as well as the glorious act one quartet (Cadmus, Semele, Athamas and Iris) and they did not disappoint here.

The London Handel Singers, some 22 strong, were in fine, firm voice giving the choruses, some quite substantial, good value. And the London Handel Orchestra were, as ever, sterling support under Laurence Cummings lively direction. He directed from the harpsichord, whilst Alastair Ross played second harpsichord (and occasionally organ).

The performance was dedicated to the memory of Denys Darlow, the founder of the festival who died in February 2015.

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