Semele – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by William Congreve [sung in English]
Jupiter – Richard Burkhard
Juno – Helen Charlston
Iris – Héloïse Bernard
Cupid – Bethany Horak-Hallett
Somnus – Christopher Foster
Apollo – Jolyon Loy
Cadmus – Jonathan Brown
Semele – Anna Dennis
Ino – Aoife Miskelly
Athamas – William Wallace
Chief Priest – Graeme Broadbent
Second Priest / First Augur – Rory Carver
Third Priest / Second Augur – James Rhoads
Academy of Ancient Music
Julian Perkins (harpsichord)
Recorded 23-25 November 2019 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, and 26 November at the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: ACADEMY OF ANCIENT MUSIC AAM012 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 2 minutes
Around thirty-six years before Handel composed his celebrated version of Semele, the subject had been taken up by John Eccles in an opera probably written by the end of 1706, but seemingly never performed. It is ironic that Eccles’s work has been so completely eclipsed by Handel’s oratorio, because the latter took over the earlier composition’s libretto by William Congreve, in a form expanded and modified by an anonymous writer. Unlike the intermediate operatic treatments of the myth by Marin Marais (Sémélé, 1709) and Antonio de Literes (the zarzuela Júpiter y Sémele, 1718) the dramatic scenarios of these two English language versions are effectively the same as each other, as a result. They make, therefore, for a fascinating comparison.
Musically, Eccles’s score is much more akin to Purcell’s stageworks in style than Handel’s which is, in all but name, an Italianate opera (Charles Jennens indeed called it a bawdy opera rather than an oratorio). And an almost passing similarity between the opening motif of ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ and that of ‘Cease your funning’ in The Beggar’s Opera brings the piece close to the world of popular ballad. If Semele presages any of Handel’s works, the jaunty and sometimes rustic-sounding mood of some numbers (particularly Jupiter’s ‘Come to my arms’) evoke the same Arcadian world as the masque Acis and Galatea.
Given the modest ensemble for which the opera is scored – fairly typically for the beginning of the eighteenth-century – Eccles’s music is particularly driven by the continuo, notably in the recitatives and ariosopassages, though it does blossom into more extensive arias, even if not the strict da capo form of full-blown opera seria which England had yet to experience properly. The Academy of Ancient Music creates an appropriately resonant but vigorous account from the continuo upwards – being directed by Julian Perkins from the harpsichord – and sustain a lithe and succinct performance of the work overall: it lasts barely two hours, as against three in Handel’s uncut score. The strings savour the varying moods and rhythms of the arias and interpolated ‘symphonies’, be it the amorous ecstasies of Semele’s music, or the ethereal wavering on the repeated notes which accompany the suitably lethargic number given to the god Somnus.
Anna Dennis sings the title role with unshakeable assurance but also brings out her human dimension in the gentle radiance of her singing, making Eccles’s Semele perhaps a more sympathetic character than the feistily pleasure-seeking one of Handel’s version. Richard Burkhard’s Jupiter is urbane and eloquent, perhaps sly, but certainly calm, and movingly tragic as he laments the fate that will befall Semele when he complies with the oath which he took to grant her wish and reveal himself to her in full godly form. The throaty haughtiness of Helen Charlston’s performance conveys the jealous imperiousness of Juno as she plots her revenge on Semele, whilst the effusive account of the goddess’s handmaid Iris by Héloïse Bernard aptly conjures her willing obsequiousness in those stratagems.
If Graeme Broadbent’s slightly croaky Chief Priest at first gets the opera off with a shaky start, he settles down into a more secure performance, and Jolyon Loy’s voluble Apollo rounds off the whole with the final solo number, heralding an upbeat chorus from the combined forces. In between, Aoife Miskelly conveys noble restraint as Ino, the sister of Semele, as she harbours feelings for the latter’s human fiancé, Athamas, who is characterised here passionately and excitably by William Wallace. Mention should also be made of Bethany Horak-Hallett’s charmingly capricious Cupid, and the sleepily still account of Somnus’s music by Christopher Foster who manages to instil a musically lyrical presence nonetheless.A well-packed, 200-page booklet in hard covers, comprising essays about various aspects of the story and the music alongside many illustrations, accompanies the CDs to constitute a sumptuous package that has become a hallmark of AAM’s releases of little-known and undiscovered compositions. Quite aside from any invidious comparison with Handel then, Eccles’s work, and this first professional realisation of it on disc, make a significant contribution to our knowledge of music drama in Restoration-era England. It raises the question how such repertoire may have developed if Handel had never come to this country.