Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christophe Rousset
Royal Festival Hall, 18 October 2017
Handel’s Semele is a curious work. Described at the time as a “musical drama . . . after the manner of an oratorio”, it is positioned rather awkwardly between opera and oratorio. It was first performed in concert format during the 1744 Lenten oratorio season, the decidedly secular story causing an inevitable shock to those expecting a piously biblical seasonal oratorio. Nowadays it is usually performed as a fully staged opera, but this dramatically performed concert performance gave us a chance to absorb the music, without interference from a director. Despite fairly obviously moralistic undertones, the story is about as far from the biblical oratorio as you can get.
Semele, daughter of the King of Thebes, is engaged to Athamas (who is loved by Ino, Semele’s sister), but has been seduced by (and is pregnant by) the supreme god Jupiter, appearing in one of his many human disguises. Jupiter’s long-suffering but intensely jealous wife Juno tricks Semele into demanding that Jove ‘visit’ her in his godly, rather than human, form. Rather than the ultimate climax that she might have hoped for, that experience reduces her to a pile of ashes.
The Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment were joined by an excellent cast of soloists, including three from their Rising Stars of the Enlightenment scheme. The orchestra also included two members of the OAE Experience Scheme. Returning after a long absence from the OAE podium was conductor Christophe Rousset. He kept a tight reign on proceedings, with brisk speeds and carefully controlled segues. Louise Alder took the title role with a powerfully dramatic performance, slightly spoiled for me with some rather non-period singing practices and a less than secure grasp of Handel’s more complex musical lines. That said, her showpiece Myself I shall adore was a delight, as she relished her image in the mirror that had been passed from Juno, via Rousset, who snatched it back again at the end. The jealously scheming Juno was sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers in an over-the-top display that was even further from period style and risked become comedic.
Vocally the evening was redeemed by the rest of the cast, notably the three Rising Stars. James Way was outstanding vocally with his agile voice and use of ornaments, although his portrayal of Jupiter as a rather nice chap did rather reinforce the impression that Juno could gobble him up for breakfast. His Where’er you walk was one of the highlights of the evening. Rowan Pierce and Ciara Hendrick also excelled as Iris and Ino, with their attractively clear voices and impressive acting ability, albeit only partially used in this concert performance. Ciara Hendrick’s Ino was the focus of the first act, demonstrating real promise, notably in Turn, hopeless lover. The interaction between the singers was well conceived, avoiding the frequently seen error of concerts performances of a singer walking off stage just as they are being sung to. There was no real acting, but looks, expressions and the occasional stomping off all added to the drama.
Brindley Sherratt sang the two roles of Somnus, Cadmus, clearly enjoying he former’s Leave me, loathsome light. Countertenor Ray Chenez sang the role of Athamas, his excessive vibrato rather out of keeping with period style. The OAE chorus had a lot to do, and sang with commendably clear articulation. They had clearly been well-drilled by Rousset. Luise Buchberger contributed a beautifully performed cello solo in Turn, Hopeless lover, while timpanist Benedict Hoffnung had some prominent moments.
It was a delight to experience this in a concert performance.