Breaking News

Review: The English Concert Brings a Marvelous ‘Semele’

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Handel was a savvy career strategist. So what could he have been thinking when he slipped his opera “Semele” onto the boards at Covent Garden during the Lenten season of 1744?

By this point, having accepted that the appetite for Italian opera among London audiences had dwindled, Handel was writing popular English-language oratorios. “Semele” was a hybrid, adapted from an existing opera libretto by William Congreve, though Handel stipulated that it be presented at Covent Garden in the manner of an oratorio.

But the subject matter — an unabashed celebration of erotic desire and dreams of immortality, and a story of adulterous love — was hardly suitable for Lent. “Semele” ran for only four performances, followed by two more later that year. Then it languished until the mid-20th century, when audiences realized that, with its inspired music, dramatic complexity and psychological insight, “Semele” is one of Handel’s masterpieces.

“Semele” was met with enthusiastic ovations on Sunday at Carnegie Hall, where it received a marvelous concert performance by the English Concert, a superb period instrument orchestra whose annual spring visit to Carnegie is a must for Handel-lovers. They were joined by the aptly named Clarion Choir (Steven Fox, artistic director) and six splendid soloists, all led by the conductor Harry Bicket.

The overture begins with a somber yet stately introduction and segues into a rhythmically jagged allegro section full of spiraling triplet flourishes. But the mood shifts when a courtly dance sets the scene for Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes. Her father has arranged for her to marry Athamas, Prince of Boeotia. But she keeps finding reasons to put off the ceremony. As we learn, she is in love with the god Jupiter.

Handel gives Semele (the soprano Brenda Rae) a pair of arias: a tender, lyrical plea to Jupiter to inform her of what to do; and the bravura “The Morning Lark,” in which her ecstatic desires are expressed in streams of twittering, coloratura runs. Ms. Rae brought plush radiance to the confessional aria and brilliant, agile singing to the showpiece.

In a remarkable quartet that follows, Handel seems to anticipate where opera as a genre was heading. With overlapping melodic strands, four characters express differently bewildered reactions. Semele is restless for Jupiter’s guidance; Athamas (the vibrant countertenor Christopher Lowery) genuinely loves her and can’t understand her reticence; Cadmus (the sturdy, robust bass Soloman Howard) is mystified by his daughter’s emotional turmoil but doesn’t want to push her too hard; and poor Ino, Semele’s sister (the deep-voiced mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong), who actually loves Athamas, is a bundle of conflicting emotions, including resentment of Semele.

This is the kind of complex quartet Mozart would later master. In a boldly operatic touch, Jupiter (the rich-voiced tenor Benjamin Hulett) renders his verdict about the impending marriage by sending down thunder and fury, captured in the orchestra with pummeling drums and registered in chorus with terrified exhortations.

Crucial scenes for Jupiter and his aggrieved wife, June (sung by Ms. DeShong with ferocity and a comedic streak), unfold in dramatic recitative. But the choruses may be the glory of “Semele.” Act II — when it looks like Semele and Jupiter, in the form of a mortal man, are going to live in sensual bliss — ends with the sumptuous “Bless the glad earth.” Strands of voices slip into passages of fugue, though Handel knows not to push the counterpoint into tangles of complexity.

Semele, who desires immortality, is eventually tricked by Juno (disguised as Ino) into demanding that Jupiter appear to her in his godly form. This causes her destruction, sanctified with a contemplative yet stunned choral number. But the opera ends with the jubilant, rowdy “Happy, happy shall we be.”

Why so happy? Bacchus, the god of wine, will rise from Semele’s ashes, we learn. So it’s party time.


Source link

No comments