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GRAMOPHONE (09/2020)
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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp 

Semele is a work that deserves more recordings than it has had. What should by rights be considered the greatest masterpiece of English-language opera between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes has suffered by misleading categorisation among the oratorios, and from that position by its oddness among the Messiahs and the Jephthas for being fashioned to a comedic text – and a saucy Congreve one at that.

A new recording is always welcome, then, especially when it comes from someone who knows his dramatical business as John Eliot Gardiner does. This one is made from a ‘staged concert’ performance last year at London’s Alexandra Palace, and, a sometimes rather dry acoustic apart, enjoys the usual benefits of the live approach, chief among them greater urgency, continuity and commitment. Vital choruses and orchestral playing we can expect from Gardiner in any context (whether in the convulsions of the opening incantation scene or in that sensational little chorus ‘Now love that everlasting boy invites’), but dialogues such as those between would-be lovers Ino and Athamas in Act 1 or Juno and Iris in Act 2 (there is audience laughter when Juno cuts impatiently across Iris’s blithe warbling), or the beautifully timed final scene between Jupiter and Semele, come across here with a realism that can be hard to summon in studio conditions.

It would seem that Gardiner has also cast his performance with dramatic imperatives in mind, for while his singers include relatively few familiar Handelian names, each has a colour and temperament to bring their character to life. Hugo Hymas has just the smooth vocal beauty needed for a sympathetic Jupiter, who has here clearly taken young and irresistibly handsome form. Lucile Richardot is a strikingly cross Juno, her piercingly declamatory and almost tenorish hard tone showing her to be a wronged wife not to mess with; yet she can also conjure vulnerability when doubling as Ino. Carlo Vistoli is a nobly resolute Athamas. And there are pleasing cameos from Angela Hicks (a beguiling mix of mellifluousness and boyishness as Cupid), Angharad Rowlands as the Augur in a pretty rendition of ‘Endless pleasures’ and Gianluca Buratto as a lightly lumbering Somnus. Emily Owen is an amusingly flustered Iris but needs to refine her tuning.

As for Semele herself, Louise Alder is a happy choice, her voice rich, fluid and precise, and her agile and alert acting skills finding ideal projection in the wonderful clutch of arias Handel sets before her. How drowsily erotic ‘O sleep’ is, how vain and flighty ‘Myself I shall adore’, how ambition-maddened that fatal last scene! Anyone who has been following this bubbly young singer’s career so far will recognise this as a role that could have been written to exploit her skills.

Older readers may recall that Gardiner recorded Semele for Erato nearly four decades ago with an impeccable cast of early music stars of the day. But for all the fine singing of Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Norma Burrowes, and even with a thrillingly vivid Juno from Della Jones, this version can seem rather reserved, lacking the dramatic confidence and immediacy of the new one. It also makes quite a few cuts. A more meaningful comparison might be Christian Curnyn’s recording for Chandos, with Rosemary Joshua setting down a role she has sung on stage on numerous occasions. Her Semele is a wonder of poised knowingness, but overall Curnyn’s admired account misses Gardiner’s last ounce of dramatic and (from the orchestra especially) sonic force.


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