Opera Recording of the Year – An alluring Semele by Gardiner and the Monteverdis

Subtitled Musical drama after the manner of an oratorio, George Frideric Handel’s Semele, HWV 58 (1743) is an intriguing affair. Standing apart of both his Italian operas and English oratorios, Semele is somewhat sui generis.

In fact, what Handel devised within one month in the summer of 1743, was a fully-fledged opera in English. Interestingly, Semele is based on an old libretto by William Converge, first set to music by John Eccles in 1707, for a production that never materialized. 

For his Semele,Handel had choruses and recitatives based on Converge’s other poems added by his anonymous librettist, in order to meet the standards of the day. In addition, an adaptation of Alexander Pope’s Summer also appears in the libretto, alongside some newly written poetry. 

Premiered at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden on 10 February 1744, Semele was both admired and boycotted, due to its sexual innuendos deemed unfit for the Lent season. With its only revival in December 1744, Semele was not performed again in Handel’s lifetime. Yet, its allure is wholeheartedly embraced by posteriority, as the new recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi forces dazzlingly testify. 

Recorded in conjunction with the wonderful live performance at the Alexandra Palace Theatre on 2 May 2019, Semele is released as a three-disc set by the Monteverdis house label Soli Deo Gloria, accompanied by insightful commentary from Gardiner and David Vickers, co editor of the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia, alongside a complete libretto. 

With the score of Semele still awaiting its Handel Halle Edition publication, the performance recorded here is based on materials provided by Bärenreiter, with a couple of alternatives from Handel’s autograph, as well as some small cuts to the recitatives and the omission of a few arias from Act I. 

A perceptive study on love, both professed and hidden, permitted and illicit, involving gods and mortals, with supernatural contributions involving dragons and Zephyrs, the Ovidian libretto is filled with wit and emotion, poignantly communicative for contemporary audiences.

In the course of its three acts, Semele’s illicit love affair with the god Jupiter unfolds its arch, from the blissful days in a divine abode to the inevitable ruin, devised by Jupiter’s spouse, the goddess Juno, and her cohorts. Closing with Apollo’s prophesy of Bacchus, the unborn child of Semele and Jupiter rising from the ashes and delivering a delight more mighty than love to the earth, Semele is a combination of tragedy and entertainment at the highest level. 

Set alight with emotion by Handel’s ravishing score, the libretto is clad in astounding vocal and orchestral beauty. Abundant with soaring solo lines, flourishing choruses and gorgeous instrumental colours, Semele is a treat, especially in a labour-of-love production such as this. 

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Semele with the Monteverdis at Philharmonie de Paris in May 2019. © Monteverdi Choir & Orchestras

More than thirty five years have passed since Gardiner’s first recording of Semele, released by Erato in 1983. The sonic improvements of the new recording are perhaps too obvious to be listed here at length, but it should be stated, that the SDG team has done extraordinary work in capturing the energy and connectivity of the live performance, while focusing admirably on fine detail of both vocal and instrumental parts. 

With lovely spaciousness, the superlative performance by Gardiner and his singers and instrumentalists is well served by the brilliant recording. 

Handel’s orchestral fabric is awaken into luminous sounding guise by the splendid musicians of the English Baroque Soloists. In addition to strings, oboes and bassoons, for extended colour and impact, Handel’s score calls forth horns, trumpets and timpani. In addition, a subtly enchanting harp part is woven into the fabric. 

From seductive enchantment to thunderous awe, Handel’s instrumental writing is beautifully brought to life by the spirited and dedicated performance of Gardiner’s musicians, thus providing an ideal framework for the vocal dramaturgy. 

The forty two singers of the Monteverdi Choir shine in those marvellous choruses Handel sets to reflect and highlight the drama. 

Be it the uplifting First Act opener,  Lucky omens bless our rites, the stormy Avert these omens, aka ye powr’rs, the blissful How engaging, how endearing or the enraptured Now Love that everlasting boy invites, not to mention the astounding closing numbers for each act, the Monteverdi Choir delivers outstanding performances throughout, full of splendor and sensitivity. 

Soprano Louise Alder’s portrayal of Semele is simply wonderful. Her sublime musicality and sensitive expression, ever in accord to the dramatic nuance, is a delight beyond words. Fiery and compelling, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot’s Juno is an excellent fusion of divinatory awe and the most human emotional sphere.  As counterparts, the two singers go fabulously together, resulting in extraordinary drama.

Tenor Hugo Hymas sings the anthropomorphic Jupiter with allure and lyricism, well connected with Alder’s Semele. Both their witty Second Act love scenes and the tragic Third Act culmination are clad in vocal magnificence and sensitive dramaturgy, with full support from Gardiner and his players. 

Tenor Hugo Hymas, soprano Louse Alder and the English Baroque Soloists performing Semele at Palau de la Música, Barcelona in May 2019. © Toni Bofill / Monteverdi Choir & Orchestras

Countertenor Carlo Vistoli soars as Athamas in the First Act and in the penultimate scene of the Third Act, delivering impassioned performances of Handel’s glistening lives. In similar vein, bass Gianluca Buratto makes a wondrous double appearance as Semele’s father King Cadmus and Somnus, the god of sleep. Buratto’s grasp of both bass parts is ever top-class, yielding to a marvellous performance.  

From the ranks of the Monteverdi Choir, sopranos Emily Owen, Angela Hicks, and Angharad Rowlands, together with tenor Peter Davoren and bass Dan D’Souza, deliver memorable solo performances in the supplementing roles, further enriching the vocal splendor of the production. 

Joined together under Gardiner’s compelling vision, the fabulous team on singers and instrumentalists make Handel proud with their committed and skilled performances. A worthy recipient of the 2020 Adventures in Music Opera Recording of the Year award, this is a Semele of a lifetime.   

English Baroque Soloists

Monteverdi Choir

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Louise Alder, soprano (Semele)

Hugo Hymas, tenor (Jupiter)

Lucile Richardot, mezzo-soprano (Juno/Ino) 

Carlo Vistoli, countertenor (Athamas)

Gianluca Buratto, bass (Cadmus/Somnus) 

Emily Owen, soprano (Iris)

Angela Hicks, soprano (Cupid)

Peter Davoren, tenor (Apollo) 

Angharad Rowlands, soprano (Augur) 

Dan D’Souza, bass (High Priest)

George Frideric Handel: Semele, HWV 58 (1743)

Recorded at Alexandra Palace Theatre, London, 2-4 May 2019

Soli Deo Gloria SDG733 (2020), 3 CD

© Jari Kallio

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