A Reminder of the Genius of Handel in Semele

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel – Semele (concert performance): Soloists; Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Christophe Rousset (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.10.2017. (CC)

Semele – Louise Alder
Jupiter – James Way
Juno – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Cadmus/Somnus – Ashley Riches
Athamas – Ray Chenez
Iris – Rowan Pierce
Ino – Clara Hendrick
Apollo – Jeremy Budd
High Priest – Robert Davies

English National Opera gave a memorable Semele in 2004 (review). It is a fine score, demanding fine singers; Handel referred to it as an “English oratorio”, but it has a real sense of operatic space and vision. There were riches galore here (no pun intended on that singer) in a cast that encompassed several young singers in the OAE’s Rising Stars of the Enlightenment Scheme (James Way, Rowan Pierce, Clara Hendrick), as well as the more experienced Catherine Wyn-Rogers.

Even though this was a concert performance, it was a remarkably deft one. Drama came across not only in the voices but also in the looks and glances between singers and in the sheer dramatic belief evinced by the performers. Rousset, too, favours fast speeds and a palpable sense of ongoing drama. The performance comes on the back of a concert with these forces in Venice.

Set to a libretto by William Congreve after a story by Ovid, a libretto first set by John Eccles, the plot is something of a reflection on love. And in a programme booklet essay and in a pre-concert event, social philosopher Roman Krznaric meditated on the various types of love These were far more multi-faceted in the Greek six-pronged definitions than in modern thought (Eros; Philia – deep friendship; Ludus – playful; Agape – love for all; Pragma – longstanding love; and Philautia – self-love). The plot certainly incudes infidelity and jealousy to move it along. A prime example of this is Juno’s livid reaction to Jupiter’s duplicity in persuading Semele, via an appeal to her vanity, to ask Jupiter to appear in Divine form. This act spells the end of Semele – and, in fact, the birth of Bacchus.

The opening of this Semele set out Rousset’s stall: crisp violins, tight rhythms, no hanging about. Brisk and taut, Rousset clearly saw the long-term goals right from the very beginning. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment reacted with inspired playing.

Louise Alder, a member of Frankfurt Opera, was in fabulous, full voice, revelling in Semele’s vanity while delivering accurate intervals. Her dramatic equal was found in Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ fearsome Juno, imposing and of huge, dominating stage presence. Clara Hendrick’s Ino was notable for its stunning diction and convincing delivery, her air, ‘Turn, hopeless lover’ expressively and gorgeously sustained with superbly shaded melismas This air also featured the impeccable cello of Luise Buchberger. Hendrick’s second act air, ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me’ was also beautifully done. James Way (Jupiter) has a great expressive range, from the bullet-like delivery in ‘I must with speed amuse her’ to the grazioso air ‘Come to my arms, my lovely fair’. Occasionally, though, there was a worrisome bleat in the voice.

Sadly, Ray Chenez’s Athamas came across as rather reedy and his tuning was rather precarious. Rowan Pierce, who impressed in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at Milton Court in May this year, was a fresh Iris, every utterance perfectly considered. Ashley Riches took on the dual roles of Cadmus and the God Somnus with all the confidence one has come to associate with him, combined with accuracy and beautifully clean attack. Although I found Riches’ Brander lacking in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust at this year’s Proms, this particular evening found him back on top form. Jeremy Budd’s Apollo was clean and clear.

The Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment was on resplendent form, while the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment raised its game to every one of Rousset’s demands. All in all, this was a reminder of the genius of Handel in Semele, and simultaneously a celebration of some of the crème de la crème of young vocal talent in this repertoire today.

Colin Clarke

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