Friday 24 July 2020

Zest and relish: Handel's comic masterpiece Semele directed by John Eliot Gardiner with young cast enjoying every minute

Handel Semele; Louise Alder, Hugo Hymas, Lucile Richardot, Gianluca Buratto, Carlo Vistoli, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner; SDG
Handel Semele; Louise Alder, Hugo Hymas, Lucile Richardot, Gianluca Buratto, Carlo Vistoli, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner; SDG

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 July 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Based on a live performance at Alexandra Palace, Handel's comic masterpiece is presented here in quite a full version combining great zest and character with technical bravura from John Eliot Gardiner and his young cast

In 1741, Handel stopped presenting Italian operas in London and, feeling rather off with the London scene entirely, accepted an invitation to perform in Dublin (where Messiah was premiered). Whilst Handel was away, Thomas Arne presented a double bill at Covent Garden, Handel's Alexander's Feast and his own new setting of Congreve's libretto The Judgement of Paris (which was originally written for an English opera competition 40 year earlier, see my article The Invention of English Opera).

Handel would have known about the performances, and someone in Handel's circle seems to have pointed out to the composer that Congreve wrote other librettos, his text for Semele was published in 1710. This had been written for John Eccles (who had taken part in The Judgement of Paris competition), but Semele had never come to the operatic stage, falling foul of the complex theatrical politics of the day and the changing tastes of the theatre-going public.

Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Louise Alder - Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Louise Alder
Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
In 1744, Handel organised his own subscription series at Covent Garden, working for himself rather than another promoter. Handel's tastes had always been rather more varied than those of his aristocratic clients, and his supporters in England had often urged him towards more English opera. Eccles' Semele was the last flowering of the brief early run of English opera, Blow's Venus and Adonis, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Eccles' two pieces, and Handel had nodded to this tradition in his masque Acis and Galatea in 1718. Here, and in other works, Handel had shown how he could take the English, Purcellian tradition and present his own take on it.

Perhaps he considered that the experiment of Semele might come to be the start of a tradition of his own English operas. It is an intriguing thought, but it was not to be; Handel's Semele did not go down well and was never repeated.

John Eliot Gardiner first recorded Handel's Semele some 40 years ago, with Norma Burrowes in the title role. Last year, he returned to the work and presented it in semi-staged performances on tour. His recording on SDG, made live last year at Alexandra Palace Theatre, features Louise Alder as Semele, Hugo Hymas as Jupiter, Lucile Richardot as Juno and Ino (a doubling that Handel seems to have intended), Carlo Vistoli as Athamas, Gianluca Buratto as Cadmus and Somnus (again, Handel doubled these roles in his performances), Emily Owen as Iris, Angela Hicks as Cupid, Peter Davoren as Apollo, Angharad Rowlands as Augur and Dan D'Souza as the High Priest, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Emily Owen, Angela Hicks, Peter Davoren and Angharad Rowlands are all members of the Monteverdi Choir. The piece was staged by Thomas Guthrie [see my recent interview with Thomas].

Handel: Semele - Gianluca Buratto, English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
Handel: Semele - Gianluca Buratto, English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
The libretto that Handel set was edited and expanded from Congreve's original, creating more, longer arias by inserting poetry by Congreve and by Alexander Pope. The version we hear here is rather more substantial than Gardiner's previous recording (few people perform the work entirely complete). Here, Act I is trimmed of two arias (one for Semele and one for Athamas), and the aria 'Endless pleasure' at the end is given to the Augur (Angharad Rowlands) as per Congreve's original libretto rather than to Semele, as per Handel's libretto (which with the other cut, means that Louise Alder loses two of Semele's arias). In Act Two we get Cupid's Come, Zephyrs which Handel wrote but never performed, and Gardiner also restores a cut passage in Jupiter's aria Where'er you walk.

If you want to hear Act I in its fullest version then try John Nelson's recording on Deutsche Grammophon with Kathleen Battle in the title role [available from Amazon].

Louise Alder makes a delightful Semele, rich voiced and characterful yet well able to fulfil the technical requirements of the role, and some of Gardiner's swift speeds. In Act One she manages to come over as poignant rather than self-regarding, as can sometimes be the case and the loss of 'Endless pleasure' helps this. In Act Two, 'O Sleep' is profoundly beautiful and rather touching, with some delicate instrumental textures, yet she is urgent in 'With fond desiring'. In Act Three, 'My racking thoughts' is rather moving whilst 'Myself I shall adore' is simply delightful and as self-regarding as one could wish for. Alder very much makes Semele a multi-sided figure, yet does not neglect Winton Dean's 'sex-kitten' aspect to the role. 'No, no, I'll take no less' is finely decisive, with stupendous passage-work, and in 'Ah me!' we really feel sorry for her.

Jupiter is a lyric role, but it is worth bearing in mind that the first Jupiter, John Beard, sang the title role in Handel's Samson the year before Semele! Hugo Hymas is perhaps younger than many singers in the role, but he brings to it maturity of tone and an admirable firmness of purpose. His first aria, 'Lay your doubts and fears aside' is finely confident, whilst 'I must with speed amuse her' is delightfully perky, with some decisive playing from the orchestra and terrific passage-work from both Hymas and orchestra (Gardiner's speed is on the swift side). The hit number of the show, 'Where e'er you walk' is beautifully shaped, yet full of vibrant tone,  and fascinating to get the extra little bit in the middle! He is nicely ardent in Act Three's 'Come to my arms', and rather moving in his final accompagnato.

Handel: Semele - Lucile Richardto, Carlo Vistoli -English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
Handel: Semele - Lucile Richardto, Carlo Vistoli, English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
The double role of Juno and Ino is one that I associate very much with Marilyn Horne (who was a very fine comedian as well as having a superb technique), she was on the John Nelson recording and I saw her in the role at Covent Garden. Here, Lucile Richardot demonstrates a similar relish for the words (and they are truly wonderful) and a combination of technique and character which makes the role great fun. She sometimes has a tendency to over force phrases for effect, but over all this is a brilliant incarnation, which really makes you smile. Her final triumphing aria is highly characterful, though she slightly overdoes the heavy chest tone. Whilst as Ino she manages to be poised, and blends beautifully with Alder in the glorious duet 'Prepare then, ye immortal choir'.

Carlo Vistoli sings the rather ungrateful role of Athamas, a character that needs to exist for plot purposes but actually does little. Reduced to a single aria in Act One, he sings this elegantly with admirably strong tones and makes you wish Handel and Congreve had created a more dynamic role. His final aria (the last aria in the piece) is fast and vivid, and admirable combination of technique and drama.

Gianluca Buratto makes a strong Cadmus, finely resonant of voice though that he is not a native English speaker sometimes shows in his vowels. And he has just the right type of dark voice for Somnus, 'Leave me, loathsome light' is finely and evenly phrased, whilst 'More sweet is the name' has an admirable swagger and nicely comic swing.

Handel: Semele - Gianluca Buratto, Lucile Richardot, English Baroque Soloits
Handel: Semele - Gianluca Buratto, Lucile Richardot, English Baroque Soloits
Emily Owen is Iris, and she holds here own admirably in the face of the onslaught of Juno's character, creating a character which is lyric yet admirably firm. Angharad Rowlands sings here solo 'Endless pleasure' with complete delight; she has a lighter voice than Alder which proves a fine contrast, yet she manages to bring relish to all those perky decorations (I have to confess, that in this aria, I still remember the wonderful Valerie Masterson in John Cox's delightfully outrageous production at Covent Garden). Angela Hicks' Cupid gets her lovely aria 'Come Zephyrs, come', which perhaps does hold up the action but Hicks certainly charms. At the end with get Peter Davoren's firm-voiced Apollo to resolve things, and Dan D'Souza provides admirable support as the High Priest.

Both the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists follow Gardiner's lead in bringing a combination of character and technique to the piece. Gardiner's sometimes fast speeds hold no terrors for them, and we never have the feeling of a vehicle out of control, and it is that sense of characterful drama and complete enjoyment which comes over. John Eliot Gardiner was in his late 70s when this was recorded (he was born in 1943), yet this music shows no sign of slowing down and the whole work is full of his zest for the drama and clear delight in the multi-faceted nature of the piece.

This was recorded at a live performance, and it shows, there is a sense of engagement her and of everyone enjoying themselves. I will still return to John Nelson, Kathleen Battle and Marilyn Horne, but this new recording brings quite a full version of the opera and a lovely sense of it as a comic drama.

Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists - Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome

The cast is admirably polyglot, with a French and two Italian soloists, and a fine amount of work has been done on the English diction and rhetoric. Both Lucile Richardot and Carlo Vistoli make you forget they are not native English speakers, and Richardot's use of language has a particular relish to it. Gianluca Buratto, whilst giving us the occasional odd vowel, shows a fine sense of comic timing in his use of English.

The CD booklet contains a short essay by John Eliot Gardiner and a longer and highly informative piece from David Vickers, along with full text and translations, and relatively unusually Vickers also details exactly what we are (and are not) hearing.

Handel never returned to this style of piece, his next dramatic work was his oratorio Joseph and his Brethren, though in 1745 he would have another go with a serious dramatic piece Hercules, another masterpiece, another English opera, and another relative failure. Handel would return to a sort of English opera in 1749 with the oratorio Susanna which includes many elements of the English pastoral drama which seems to have interested him.

Thus, Semele very much stands alone, an isolated masterpiece which never led anywhere. On this recording we can admire it, but also engage with its delightful sense of character and enjoy the way Handel clearly relished the bawdy innuendo of Congreve's text.

Handel: Semele - Hugo Hymas, Louise Alder, English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
Handel: Semele - Hugo Hymas, Louise Alder, English Baroque Soloists - Philharmonie de Paris
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Semele (1744)
Semele - Louise Alder
Jupiter - Hugo Hymas
Juno / Ino - Lucile Richardot
Athamas - Carlo Vistoli
Cadmus / Somnus - Gianluca Buratto
Iris - Emily Owen
Cupid - Angela Hicks
Apollo - Peter Davoren
Augur - Angharad Rowlands
High Priest - Dan D'Souza
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Recorded live on 2 May 2019, Alexandra Palace Theatre, London, also 3-4 May 2019
SDG 3CDs [39:07, 50:55, 65:47]
Available from Amazon.

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