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John ECCLES (1668-1735)
Semele (c.1706)
Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Handel Opera/Julian Perkins (harpsichord and director)
rec. St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London and Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, November 2019
Texts included
AAM RECORDS AAM012 [72,07 + 49,20]

It wasn’t until Anthony Rooley’s Floridan production of Semele (see review) that we could hear John Eccles’ work on disc and now, nearly two decades later, comes the first professional recording, given that Rooley’s were admirable amateur performers.

In 1695 Eccles had become the musical director of a rival operatic group to the hitherto monopolistic United Company. During these years he formed a close working relationship with William Congreve, who was the leading playwright of this new group led by the famous actor Thomas Betterton. Congreve and Eccles collaborated in the competition to set The Judgement of Paris, a competition that Eccles unexpectedly lost and John Weldon won (the winner of the wooden spoon, the Moravian Gottfried Finger, it’s frequently asserted, was so outraged that he packed his bags and left England for good).

So Congreve and Eccles had enjoyed some fruitful collaboration by the time Congreve wrote Semele, and Eccles’ setting followed around 1705-06. The intention was for an Italian-styled opera that would premiere at the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket but despite suggestions that it would appear, it never did. The troupe transferred to Drury Lane but Congreve was no longer associated with the ensemble and Eccles – who had been appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1700 – lost impetus, devoting his time to annual court odes. Semele was never performed in his lifetime and in fact it wasn’t until the 1960s when it was given its first (concert) performance, in Oxford. Steuart Bedford conducted the first staged production in 1972.

Eccles was England’s leading post-Purcellian opera composer at a time when his great predecessor’s semi-operas – spoken plays with operatic scenes – were being superseded by all-sung Italian operas. It’s too much to speculate whether the paradigm of Italianate opera sung in English would have taken root throughout the eighteenth century – Semele of course never offered the precedent as it was never performed – and in any case Handel’s Rinaldo arrived on the London stage in 1711, at which point the future was all-sung Italian. Yet Semele retains Purcellian elements even as it embraces the operatic zeitgeist.

The most obvious feature of Eccles’ opera is its compact division. He favoured compression, scenically and dramatically, so that the narrative moves with great rapidity. The recitatives are equally crisp, the arias, duets and trios being largely strophic, some drawing on native folkloric traditions, and almost all short. There are obviously no da capo arias with opportunities for florid decoration; instead the libretto, precisely the same that Handel used for his work, focuses attention on the essential seriousness of the dilemmas faced by the human characters to which Eccles responds with an equal precision, without recourse either to melodrama or to frivolity.

Eccles tended to work on a smaller scale than the operatic but he is notably deft when it comes to instrumental touches, such as violin obbligati, the structurally important use of the wind machine, and of tempest-styled intensity. It’s this adrenalin that I also ascribe to Julian Perkins, who directs the Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord. I’ve just listened to his vivacious playing of the keyboard music of the obscure English composer John Worgan (Toccata TOCC 0375) who was active compositionally after Eccles had retired, and his performance of sometimes somewhat eccentric music is wonderfully vivid, as is his direction of Semele. He encourages bracing tempi without allowing them to become breathless or short-winded. Pacing of the recitatives is finely judged (the opening recitative of Act II between Juno and Iris is a perfect case in point – not wilfully rushed but maintaining its own natural rhythm). Orchestral discipline is assured, and individual contributions are poised. The Symphony that opens Act III is pizzicato laced and full of interest.

He has a first class cast at his disposal. The heroine and author of her own destruction is taken by Anna Dennis with crystal clear diction and all-round stage craft. Splendid throughout she knows just how to play her final moment when Eccles gifts her the frivolously fast I’ll be pleas’d with no less, which is both brilliantly dispatched and a wholly apt piece of characterisation. Jupiter is taken by baritone Richard Burkhard. In his entreaty Come to my Arms he woos Semele beautifully over a deliberately rustic dance but his entreaty to her Ah! Take heed what you press is, by contrast, full of concern. It forms part of an acceleration of the music’s dramatic and expressive temperature in Act III Scene 4 which is not held up by large-scale arias, for better or worse (in the specific context of this work, for the better). William Wallace’s Athamas is a pleasure to encounter - eager and plausibly youthful - and mezzo Helen Charlston scores highly as Juno. She is admirable, for example, in her dramatic recit No more – I’ll hear no more, with strong expressive contrasts, clarity of diction and real theatrical fervour; qualities that apply to her singing of the arias too. Somnus is taken by bass Christopher Foster and his standout is Leave me, loathsome Light, three minutes of arioso-like interest made even more engaging by virtue of Juno’s subsequent Somnus, arise, an imperious instruction from Charlson. In fact, this Act III Scene 1 is terrific – musically and theatrically.

As Congreve intended Endless Pleasure is sung by the First Augur and not by Semele (some modern performances of Handel’s Semele also strip the aria from her) whilst O Sleep, why dost thou leave me? whilst technically termed an aria is in effect spoken recit and lasts less than a minute.

You won’t have a spare second over the next week if you acquire this recording as it’s presented in a box which contains a CD-sized book of nearly 200 pages. Not only is there a full libretto and artist biographies, as is to be expected, there is also – as is perhaps not quite to be expected - an essay on the Royal Cook of Eccles’ time. When you have absorbed that, and possibly tried the recipes, you can read about the role of lead mutes in string playing, the role of the Gods in ancient mythological tradition and – Lord save us – there is an extract from Stephen Fry’s retelling of the Semele story from his book Mythos (a full-page reproduction of his book’s jacket is included too; there’s photograph of Fry as well, for those as yet unsated). One doesn’t have to be Philip Larkin to find some of this pretentiously academic but it would be utterly churlish to overlook the beautifully reproduced portraits, photographs, details of the autograph score and so much else. This really is about as sumptuous an accompanying book as I have come across. There’s too much to absorb but better that than not enough and if I were you, I’d head to Peter Holman’s essay on page 78 and that by Dr Alan Howard on the succeeding pages.

Clearly, I need to be seen to tut about something so let me point out that the timings of the first disc are largely all wrong because they are one out and refer to a preceding track. Not that your eye will be on the timings as your ear will be enjoying this tightly produced, outstandingly well sung and splendidly performed Italianate opera.

Jonathan Woolf

Anna Dennis (soprano) – Semele
Aoife Miskelly (soprano) – Ino
Héloïse Bernard (soprano) – Iris
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano) – Juno
Bethany Horak-Hallett (mezzo-soprano) – Cupid
William Wallace (tenor) – Athamas
Rory Carver (tenor) – Second Priest, First Augur
James Rhoads (tenor) – Third Priest, Second Augur
Richard Burkhard (baritone) – Jupiter
Jonathan Brown (baritone) – Cadmus
Jolyon Loy (baritone) – Apollo
Graeme Broadbent (bass) – Chief Priest
Christopher Foster (bass) – Somnus



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