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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Semele, a secular choral work (1744)
with text from William Congreve after Ovid
Semele - Anna Ryberg (soprano)
Jupiter - Angus Wood (tenor)
Ino/Juno - Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano)
Cadmus/Somnus - Stephen Bennett (bass)
Athamas - Tobias Cole (counter-tenor)
Priest - Craig Everington (bass)
A Deity - Shelli Gilhome (soprano)
Apollo - Paul McMahon (tenor)
Iris - Belinda Montgomery (soprano)
Cantillation/Antony Walker
Sirius Ensemble
Rec. live 4, 5, 6 ,7, 9 December 2002 in the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, Australia. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 980 047-0 [3CDs: 42:40+49:21+58:56 = 150:57]

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Australian record label ABC Classics have released a live recording of Handel’s Semele. This a fascinating and entertaining first ever production by the Pinchgut Opera, Sydney's newest opera company in whose ranks, we are told, are some of Australia’s finest opera singers.

Handel’s Semele is neither an oratorio nor an opera, but a mixture of the two; sometimes referred to as a ‘pastoral’. Described by biographer Herbert Weinstock in 1959 as an, "actionless opera." the work was first performed as a ‘concert version’ (like an oratorio) at Covent Garden, London in 1744 and first produced as a ‘staged presentation’ (like an opera) in Cambridge in 1925.

Handel’s disenchantment with Italian opera in the late 1730s and early 1740s has been well documented and Semele is the fruit of Handel’s experimentation with dramatic works set in the ‘oratorio way’ that were not staged and which used the English language. The libretto for Semele was thirty-seven years old written by William Congreve who had utilised various sources including the Old Testament, Greek mythology and English poetry. Congreve took his plot from the poet Ovid’s book of Metamorphoses and called it The Story of Semele. There is some doubt who arranged Congreve’s libretto which was augmented with lines from Alexander Pope and the Reverend Pratt.

Antony Walker directs the Sirius Ensemble and the Cantillation choir to great effect. The impressive Sirius Ensemble, using period instruments and authentically sized forces, play enthusiastically and are most convincing. I particularly liked Walker’s expertly judged pace which is so important in a Handel performance and the smooth timbre of the Sirius Ensemble’s strings was most impressive. The seventeen strong Cantillation choir are outstanding and a real joy to hear. They are particularly bright and eager in the Chorus of the Priests : "Lucky omens bless our rites" (CD1, track 3) and suitably menacing in "Avert these omens all ye pow’rs!" (CD1, track 9).

The solo singing on this release is enthusiastic and expressive but in the main the soloists are the weak link. They could never be described as outstanding when compared to the many eminent Handel specialists that they are competing with on the international stage; such as Bowman, Daniels, Scholl, Jacobs, Chance, Blaze, Kirkby, Dawson, Argenta, Bott, Jones, Gens, Daneman, Genaux, Kozena et al.

Anna Ryberg is well cast as Semele and gives a sensitive and engaging performance although there is a slight shakiness in her top registers plus one or two other occasional technical hitches. I particularly liked her expressive and emotional interpretations in her airs: "Oh! Sleep why dost thou leave me?" (CD2, track 7) and "With fond desiring" (CD2, track 11). The tenor Angus Wood gives a steady and convincing performance as Jupiter with an appealing mellow tone and is heard to great effect in his airs: "I must with speed amuse her" (CD2, track 14) and "Where’er you walk" (CD2, track 17). In the role of Athamas the singing of counter-tenor Tobias Cole made me wince at times which is a shame as Handel has given Athamas plenty to do throughout the work. The most problematic aria is ironically "Your tuneful voice my tale would tell" (CD1, track 16); in particular the section 00:54 to 01:39. In the role of Juno and Ino mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell equips herself very well with some fine singing particularly as Juno in the air: "Hence, Iris, hence away" (CD2, track 5). Juno’s famous and demanding air "Above measure is the pleasure, which my revenge supplies" (CD3, track 23) sees Sally-Anne Russell just managing to keep up with the brisk and lively accompaniment and finding the ornamentations a challenge. In the dual role of Cadmus and Somnus the bass Stephen Bennett steals the show for me with his rich, warm and smooth delivery of the notes and phrases. Impressive throughout, the bass has great vocal presence and is heard to great effect in the airs: "Leave me, loathsome light" (CD3, track 3) and "More sweet is that name" (CD3, track 5).

The marvellous annotation which includes full texts, synopsis and the story behind Semele is a credit to ABC Classics. On a lighter note I found the curious looking picture on the front cover rather off-putting. The fine sound quality of this recording made at live performances is very natural and clear. Undeniably several of the soloists could be improved upon but overall this is a very fine live performance of Handel’s wonderful Semele and gives much pleasure. The release from ABC Classics is well worth consideration and I look forward to hearing more from the Pinchgut Opera company.

Michael Cookson

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