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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1789)
Semele - Opera-Oratorio (1744)
Justino Diaz (bass, Cadmus, Somnus)
Mark Deller (counter-tenor, Athamas)
Sheila Armstrong (soprano, Semele)
Helen Watts (contralto, Ino, Juno)
Robert Tear (tenor, Jupiter)
Edgar Fleet (tenor, Apollo)
Felicity Palmer (soprano, Iris)
Neilson Taylor (bass, A Priest)
Amor Artis Chorale/John McCarthy
Harold Lester (harpsichord and organ)
English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary
rec. 1975 by Vanguard Classics. ADD. No further details given.
Booklet with notes and libretto in English.
MUSICAL CONCEPTS/ALTO ALC2003 [73:27+70:19]



Johannes Somary made a number of Handel recordings for Vanguard in the 1970s, including versions of Messiah, Theodora, Judas Maccabæus and this version of Semele.  Employing many of the best English singers of the day and steering a middle course between traditional-stodgy and over-ornamented-period performances, they were well received at the time and are still valuable.  They have been available on CD from time to time as the fortunes of Vanguard have waxed and waned; most recently they have been rescued by Regis and Alto in super-bargain reissues: alongside this Semele recording, Alto have also rescued Somary’s Judas Maccabæus (ALC2002, 2 CDs).
 
This recording of Semele last surfaced on Regis RRC2020, in which form it was reviewed by my colleague Kirk McElhearn in 2002, whose review contained praise and blame in roughly equal measure.  That recording no longer features in the current Regis catalogue, having been replaced in the same, lowest, price-range by the current set.
 
Some of the matters which were criticised in 2002 have been put right in the new release, especially as regards the information.  Then there was only a summary of the plot but no libretto, not even the opening words of each aria or recitative.  Now, wonder of wonders, the Alto reissue contains a booklet almost as informative as those which Naxos and Hyperion Helios provide in this lowest price category.  The back pages of the booklet provide a complete track listing, though, oddly back to front, with CD1 listed on the back cover and CD2 on the inside-back page.
 
There are five pages of notes setting Semele in context and summarising each Act, followed by biographies of the performers.  Then there is a complete libretto; my only complaint about this is that the track numbers are not incorporated – one has to keep turning to the track listing on the back pages.  The misprint “Ah wither is she gone” in the track summary is rather off-putting.  (III.v, CD2, track 13)
 
Kirk McElhearn (hereafter KM) found the recording mediocre: flat, all on one plane and with poor balance between some of the singers.  I certainly did not feel that this was the most wonderfully-recorded Handel I had ever heard, but I did feel that some of the criticism was a little harsh.  It is clear from the matrix numbers that the discs have been re-mastered for this release and the booklet names Alto’s own sound engineer, so it is probable that some of these matters have been addressed since the Regis issue.  The recording certainly does not suggest the kind of depth to be found on the best operatic recordings but that is not inappropriate for this work, first produced ‘after the manner of an oratorio’, i.e. as a concert performance, opera productions in Lent being frowned on.  The occasional imbalance between voices, as on the first track of CD2, the duet between Semele and Ino, is more disconcerting: it almost sounds as if one microphone was malfunctioning or as if the two voices were recorded in different kinds of acoustic.
 
Somary’s other Handel recordings for Vanguard were all oratorios, so this would have been the kind of sound-stage which the engineers were used to reproducing.  Semele, however, is more dramatic than the oratorios proper, so a more dramatic presentation would have been appropriate.  Having just heard the recent Diego Fasolis recording of Bach’s Secular Cantata No.205, der zufriedengestellte Æolus, I am reminded that a dramma per musica based on classical mythology need not be in operatic format to achieve dramatic effect.  Otherwise the recording reproduces both voices and instruments faithfully, with reasonable left-right separation.
 
Semele has never been one of Handel’s most popular works despite the fact that it contains one of his most famous arias, “Wher’er you walk.”  The text, by Congreve after Ovid’s Metamorphoses, had originally been intended for John Eccles  (there is an enterprising and inexpensive 2-CD version of the Eccles version on Regis FRC9203)  Handel took it up in the summer of 1743, when he was still ill following a stroke.  He completed it with his usual alacrity in a month and the work was performed in February 1744, with little success.  Handel’s inspiration had not failed but his sense of time and place perhaps had: the amours of gods and goddesses would probably have found a better audience among the Romans for whom he had composed Aci, Galatea e Polifemo some years before.  As Winton Dean puts it, “The public [in 1744] found [Semele’s] tone too close to that of the discredited Italian opera and set it down as an oratorio manqué; where they expected wholesome Lenten bread, they received a glittering stone dug from the ruins of Greek mythology.”
 
KM thought Somary’s direction sturdy and imaginative but dated, with an over-dense choir and too stiff an orchestra.  I agree, but I’d stress the good points more and the reservations less – surprisingly, I recall that some reviewers in the 1970s thought Somary’s attempts at Baroque ornamentation too bold!
 
As KM notes, the soloists were all noted singers in their day and they sing well here.  Sheila Armstrong’s singing is especially noteworthy, though I agree that she does employ a good deal of vibrato.  His criticism that she has an operatic voice rather than a baroque voice is rather unfair: such was par for the course in 1975.  Over-insistence on authenticity in this matter would rule out the still-valuable Sutherland/Bonynge version of Handel’s Alcina.  Felicity Palmer is described in the notes as ‘mezzo’ but she was actually singing soprano roles in the 1970s and was correctly so described on the Regis reissue.  Robert Tear as Jupiter strikes a good balance in his rendition of “Where’er you walk”: he and Somary avoid the temptation to over-sentimentalise this famous aria without falling into the opposite excess of trivialising it.
 
The neglect of Semele is hardly deserved: anyone with an interest in Handel’s music is likely to enjoy it.  In the absence of a really firm front-runner, this Alto reissue is competitive, especially with its price advantage.  The DGG version (435 782-2) runs to three full-price CDs and the Pierre Vernay period performance (PV704021/2) is quite heavily cut.  The Somary version is much less heavily cut – mostly a matter of omitted repeats in da capo arias.  My colleague Michael Cookson liked the ABC live recording (980 047-0, 3 CDs) with reservations, though neither this nor the Pierre Vernay seems to be currently available in the UK.  John Eliot Gardiner’s version, formerly on 2 mid-price Erato CDs, is scheduled for reissue soon in a 6-CD budget-price set with the Water Music, Concerti Grossi, Op.3, Israel in Egypt and The Ways of Zion do Mourn.  (2564 69838 5, around £25 in the UK.)
 
On the strength of owning the Vanguard/Somary Judas Maccabæus, I can recommend the Alto reissue of that work in much the same terms as this version of Semele.   Be warned, however, that Somary offers the first version of Judas, without the famous ‘See the conquering hero comes’.  Sticklers for authenticity might prefer the McGegan version of this work at a slightly higher price on Harmonia Mundi’s 1+1 series (HMX290 7374/5, one of a number of recordings worth investigating on that label).  Were Alto now to reissue Somary’s other Handel recordings, the same recommendation would apply – on the basis of personal knowledge in the case of Messiah and Theodora.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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