Monday 25 November 2019

The other Semele: John Eccles undeservedly neglected opera returns.

Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of The Indian Queen (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of The Indian Queen
(© The Trustees of the British Museum)
John Eccles' Semele, with a libretto by the playwright William Congreve, has never really got the exposure that the piece deserves. It was written in 1707 at a time when there was some interest in developing an English style of opera. Eccles had come second the 1700 competition to set William Congreve's The Judgement of Paris, and Semele was clearly designed to build on this. Its premiere at the time was planned, with the actress Anne Bracegirdle in the title role, but never happened, because the support for English opera died away in the face of the novelty of Italian opera. A number of the English works performed at the time were perhaps not particularly strong, and it is unfortunate that Eccles' confident and highly dramatic work was never seen. An early 18th century London where Eccles and Congreve's Semele was successfully staged and had influence is an intriguing might have been.

There have been occasional sightings of the opera, it was premiered in a semi-staging in 1964 in Oxford, and was given again at St John's Smith Square in 1972. In 2003, Anthony Rooley conducted forces from Florida State University in the first complete recording, and last year Peter Holman directed a concert performance as part of the Suffolk Churches Festival.

Now the Cambridge Handel Opera Company has joined forces with the Academy of Ancient Music and Cambridge Early Music to perform the work on Tuesday 26 November 2019 in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, directed by Julian Perkins with Anna Dennis as Semele, Richard Burkhard as Jupiter, Helen Charlston as Juno, Aoife Miskelly as Ino, and William Wallace as Athmas. For those unable to get to Cambridge tomorrow, the good news is that the performance will be recorded for issue on the AAM's own label.

The curious thing is that opera went on to have a strange shadow life, because Congreve's libretto was the basis for Handel's English opera Semele, so listening to Eccles' work can be an odd experience as we recognise some of the words, the characters and the plot.

Further details of tickets from Cambridge Live.

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