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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Semele (1744)
Semele - Louise Alder (soprano)
Jupiter - Hugo Hymas (tenor)
Juno/Ino - Lucile Richardot (mezzo soprano)
Athamas - Carlo Vistoli (countertenor)
Cadmus/Somnus - Gianluca Buratto (bass)
Iris - Emily Owen (soprano)
Cupid - Angela Hicks (soprano)
Apollo - Peter Davoren (tenor)
Augur - Angharad Rowlands (soprano)
High Priest - Dan D'Souza (bass)
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 2-4 May 2019, Alexandra Palace Theatre, London
Texts included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG733 [3 CDs: 155:50]

Nearly four decades after his Erato LP set, John Eliot Gardiner returns to Semele, one of the curiously under-recorded pieces in the Handelian canon. Gardiner does so with accustomed forces but an unusual venue; Alexandra Palace Theatre, London. The performances he gave there were part of a staged or semi-staged production and the advantages of visceral intensity have been compensated for by what were presumably patching sessions. His first violin section has increased slightly. Back in 1981 there were twelve firsts – Roy Goodman among them – but in the concert performances he now wields fifteen. Another difference is that there was no doubling of roles then. Here Juno and Ino are doubled as are Cadmus and Somnus. Several of the smaller roles are taken by fine singers from the Monteverdi Choir. There are some small cuts along the way in recitatives and arias in order to drive the musical argument forward with requisite drama. There’s one especially controversial decision which I may as well note here. Endless pleasure is sung not by Semele in her self-loving way but by the small role of Augur. This was in fact the librettist William Congreve’s intention, but Handel didn’t accept it and assigned the aria to Semele. Angharad Rowlands sings it nicely but it would be interesting to know what Louise Alder thought about losing one of her star arias.

Orchestrally, the English Baroque Soloists play with their usual incision. When the strings are especially prominent, such as supporting the chorus Avert these omens it’s noticeable how the lower strings are especially trenchant without losing tonal lustre. The players are equally finely poised in supporting and colouring the arias and recitatives. Stage craft is limited but the percussion effects for the thunder are theatrically convincing. The chorus is finely drilled; try Act I’s Hail Cadmus, hail! – bright-toned, incisive, with words always clear. In the pathos-drenched horror at Semele’s fall, O terror and astonishment they show another quality, the obverse of the celebratory.

The cast is a strongly international one which in some ways reinforces the operatic or quasi-operatic nature of the work and its execution here. Roles are also strongly characterised. There’s a lack of primness in this respect and a willingness to draw out the abundant humour – and the menace and malice – in a way that signals itself vividly to the audience; there are several occasions when audience laughter reinforces just how effective this is. Athamas is taken by the Italian counter-tenor Carlo Vistoli. He’s not the embodiment of the ultra-virtuosic, somewhat preening operatic counter tenor that one finds, exciting though they are. His voice is richer, warmer and more sympathetic in this role. His divisions in Your tuneful voice are excellent though there’s unease over registers and the final trill is not so effective. French mezzo Lucile Richardot takes on Juno, in which her scheming is bossy, malignant and funny – she gets a big laugh for her recit No more, I’ll hear no more. She takes on the role of Ino as well and her Act III Thus shap’d like Ino reinforces the levels of her deceit – and gives an explanation for the doubling of roles. Hugo Hymas is Jupiter and his well-focused youthful tenor is admirable in Lay your doubts and convincingly ardent in Where’er you walk. Gianluca Buratto takes on Cadmus and Somnus. There have been more personalised, more pensive performances of Leave me, loathsome light but his way with it perfectly suits Iris’ dismissal of him as a ‘dull god’. He also gets a good laugh with More sweet is that name, in which his sheer theatrical nous is irresistible – seldom in this work is yin and yang more obvious than in his two arias.

Louise Alder remains the central performer. O sleep, why dost thou leave me is sung with deft lightness and her duet with Ino, Prepare then, whilst brief is lovely, the two voices blending beautifully. She does splendidly by Myself I shall adore, which she doesn’t over-decorate or bedeck with too many virtuosic roulades but she is no less impressive in No, no, I’ll take no less where she throws off the decorations with fearless brilliance.

The recording quality is attractive and captures stage nuance well. You could hardly ask for a better programme note here than one by David Vickers.

Presiding over all is Gardiner who directs with huge authority, imagination and engagement. His earlier recording is still powerfully attractive but in terms of intensity and immediacy this live version is finer still.

Jonathan Woolf

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