Friday, 20 October 2017

Rising stars: Christophe Rousset directs Handel's Semele with an emphasis on youth

Louise Alder (photo Will Alder)
Handel Semele; Louise Alder, James Way, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ashley Riches, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christophe Rousset; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Christophe Rousset directs a predominantly young cast in Handel's opera/oratorio

Handel's Semele was the focus of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's (OAE) concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 18 October 2017. Marking the launch of the Rising Stars of the Enlightenment (the OAE's young artists scheme). Christophe Rousset conducted a cast which included three of the present tranche of young artists, Rowan Pierce as Iris, James Way as Jupiter, Ciara Hendrick as Ino, plus Louise Alder as Semele, Ashley Riches as Somnus and Cadmus, Ray Chenez as Athmas and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Juno, plus the OAE and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment.

This was a concert performance, but all concerned brought a sense of humour and character to the performance which helped to nullify the effect of the Royal Festival Hall's large open spaces on a work which demands a level of intimacy. The OAE and choir were expanded somewhat to take account of the space, with 28 strings and 33 singers, though I rather suspect that Handel would have increased the number of oboes and bassoons too. In the tutti passages the woodwind sound did rather get lost.

Christophe Rousset's interpretation certainly took no prisoners and from the overture onwards, fast speeds were really fast. Not only did he elicit impressive crisp passagework from the orchestra but his soloists, notably James Way and Louise Alder, showed an impressive turn of speed (and accuracy) in their passagework. Rousset drew some very vivid playing from the orchestra, which ensured that the work was engaging and exciting rather than driven, though I have to confess occasionally wishing he would take let the music ease up. But, despite some fine individual performances, the rather tricky first act did not really catch fire until the final aria.

Louise Alder made a delightful Semele.
She is a lyric soprano with a range from Handel to Musetta (La Boheme) and Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier). She sang with a nice vibrancy and technical facility. And whilst some of the coloratura might not have been pin-sharp, she was constantly engaging and gave us some spectacular ornaments in the da capos. You felt that for the character, Alder was channelling her inner Essex girl, so that Semele was wonderfully self-regarding in 'Myself I shall adore' and theatrically sulky in her dealings with James Way's Jupiter, yet touching too. 

James Way sang Jupiter with a surprisingly dark toned tenor which imbued the character with a nice sense implicit virility. He played Jupiter more as ardent lover than King of the Gods, though he was somewhat restrained and I could have wanted a little more swagger. But his account of the work's hit number, 'Where e'er you walk' was finely done, and he made us see that Jupiter really did feel Semele's loss at the end.

The original Juno (Esther Young) doubled as Ino, but it has become more common in concert to split the roles. Here Juno was sung by Catherine Wyn- Rogers, whilst Ino was taken by one of the young artists, Ciara Hendrick. Wyn-Rogers gave us something of classic account of Juno, all drama and comic bluster. She made the passagework quite strenuous which was, I think, partly for effect because she sang Juno's final aria with a delightful lightness; she also lightened her voice for the Ino passages. She imbued both characters with nice comic timing.

Ciara Hendrick made a poised Ino, rather intense in the first Act and joining with Louise Alder for a ravishing account of 'Prepare then, ye immortal choir' in Act Two. Her role in Act Three was reduced to just two lines (Athmas had his role entirely cut here). Rowan Pierce made a charming Iris, giving a nice account of her Act Two aria. Ray Chenez was a rather understated Athmas, singing with neat care. Then again, the role is something of a cipher, there simply because the plot needs Semele to have a lover to behind when fleeing to Jupiter.

Ashley Riches doubled the roles of Cadmus and Somnus. As Cadmus he was suitably impressive as the stern paterfamilias, but had far more fun with Somnus. Initially delightfully somnolent, Somnus eventually perks up and Riches gave us a lovely orotund account of 'More sweet is that name'. The smaller roles of High Priest and Apollo were ably taken by Robert Davies and Jeremy Budd from the choir.

The chorus was on strong form, singing with the power and crisp brilliance that Rousset obviously wanted. The combination of choir and orchestra with Rousset's faster tempi and some very up-front playing singing made a strong impression even in the Royal Festival Hall.

This perhaps was not a Semele for the ages, but it was full of good things and it was heartening to see and hear so many young singers in such a classic work. And, of course, it wasn't just the singers, there were members of the OAE Experience Scheme in the orchestra too.

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