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Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Semele (1744) [182.22]
Semele – Elisabeth
Iris/Cupid – Julla Schmidt (soprano)
Athmas – Ralf Popken (counter-tenor)
Ino – Britta Schwarz (alto)
Juno – Annette Markert (alto)
Jupiter/Apollo – Knut Schoch (tenor)
Cadmus/Somnus/Chief Priest – Klaus Mertens (bass)
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. live, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany, 27 May
NAXOS 8.570431-33 [3
CDs: 60.14 + 51.39 + 60.29]
prime requirement of any recording of Handel’s Semele is
to have the title role performed with style and charm.
It is important that we understand the appeal of the character,
in what Winton Dean called Handel’s ‘sex kitten’ roles.
It goes without saying that the singer must be able to
sing the role’s trickier passages with ease. It’s difficult
to be charming and appealing if you are labouring over
the notes. On disc singers such as Norma Burrowes (for
John Eliot Gardiner), Kathleen Battle (for John Nelson)
and Rosemary Joshua (for Christian Curnyn) have shown us
how it should be done and on stage, for me, Valerie Masterson
new disc from Naxos extends their rather variable Handel
oratorio sequence with an account of Semele from
Joachim Carlos Martini and the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra.
The recording is one which was recorded live at Kloster
Eberbach, another series which has been rather variable.
The title role is taken by Elizabeth Scholl and though
she sings capably, she sounds a little taxed by the part.
Competent and rather lacking in charm, her performance
is not helped by the relatively close miking of the soloists.
Scholl has an interesting rather than beautiful voice and
would make a good dramatic heroine, but fatally lacks the
tonal beauty which the role needs. ‘Myself I shall adore’ needs
to be sung in a way which implies vocal as well as physical
Jupiter, Knut Schoch has a pleasantly interesting lyric
tenor voice and sings ‘Where e’er you walk’ with a nice
feeling for line. But he does not have the type of smoothly
upholstered tone which we have come to expect in the role.
He also sounds a little distant from the drama; ‘Where
e’er you walk’ is lovely, but he hardly convinces us that
he is in love with - or even in lust with - Semele.
is a general problem with the performance. Though competently
executed it does not feel like drama. It is quite common
nowadays for the role of Juno to be played with something
of a twinkle in the singer’s eye. Here Annette Markert
plays it completely straight, which is not necessarily
a bad thing. But like Schoch, she seems to underplay the
drama. Her aria, ‘Hence, Iris, hence away’ should surely
ring with anger. Both Congreve and Handel give the singer
plenty to work with, but Markert seems content to execute
her vocal lines neatly.
Martini has chosen to split the roles of Juno and Ino,
perhaps to make it easier for the audience in a concert
performance, though Handel doubled the roles at the first
performance. This splitting means that Markert gets all
the plums and Britta Schwarz is left with the wet blanket
that is Ino. Still Schwarz does her best. Though she does
not stand out, she does execute her role with a quiet competency.
of the best singing on the disc comes from Julia Schmidt
and Klaus Mertens. Schmidt plays both Iris and a Cupid.
This latter role gets the Act 2 aria, ‘Come, Zephyrs, come’,
which is often cut. Schmidt has an attractively focused
soprano voice and seems to know how to get the best out
of a Handelian vocal line, something which is missing from
the other singers. Mertens is similarly attractive of voice
and hard working. He sings Cadmus, Somnus and the Chief
Priest of Juno. Perhaps he does not worry as much as he
should about differentiating the three roles, but he certainly
convinces when it comes to vocal technique and attractiveness
is something of a wimp. As with other similar roles such
as Hamor in Jephtha, Athmas’s role is to act as
a foil to Semele and her sister rather than to be pro-active
in his own right. The recording goes for quite a full text
so that Ralf Popken gets to sing ‘Despair no more’. But
this is hardly an advantage as Popken seems a rather colourless
singer. His voice, as recorded here, lacks tonal depth
and he underplays what little drama Handel and Congreve
Junge Kantorei acquits itself creditably as the chorus,
though a number of Martini’s speeds seem rather on the
slow side. Similarly the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra provides
a crisp accompaniment. There are perhaps understandably,
given that this is a live recording, a few moments where
ensemble is less than ideal.
CD booklet includes an extensive synopsis but no libretto
and the Naxos web site does not, as yet, have the libretto
to Semele uploaded. This would not normally be a
problem but none of the cast is Anglophone and sometimes
their diction is a little occluded.
about the recording as a whole, I keep coming back to the
title role. The other performers are perfectly acceptable,
especially given Naxos's attractive price bracket, but
Elisabeth Scholl gives the sort of performance which makes
one ask what was going on. Is she really unsuited to Semele,
in which case why was she engaged. Was she having vocal
problems, in which case why was the live recording issued
on CD or did the actually live recording not reflect what
actually took place in Kloster, Eberbach, which is something
I have heard before.
is not an ideal recording and the problems with the title
role mean that it is not recommendable, despite the price.
If you want a new recording of Semele then I suggest
you consider Christian Curnyn’s recent account, with Rosemary
Joshua in the title role.
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