Hasse’s Semele @ Wigmore Hall

La Semele, o sia la richiesta fatale – Serenata in two parts to a libretto by Francesco Ricciardi

Semele – Arianna Vendittelli
Giunone – Roberta Invernizzi
Giove – Sonia Prina

Compagnia de Violini
Alessandro Ciccolini (director & violin)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 6 January, 2022
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

There was a wry (intentional?) irony in programming this Serenata on 6 January. In the Christian calendar that is the feast of the Epiphany – the formal end of the Christmas season which marks the joyful occasion of the Magi’s arrival to the Christ child and is celebrated by the Church as the (first) manifestation of God incarnate to the Gentiles. By contrast, in the Classical myth, when the mortal Semele overreaches herself and demands to see her paramour, Jupiter, in his true divine form, her human frame is too weak to bear the blazing presence of the god of thunder and lightning, and so tragically perishes.

Hasse’s Serenata (Semele, or The Fatal Request, 1726) comes from the early period of his career when he worked in Naples, and pre-dates Handel’s well-known oratorio on the same subject by nearly two decades. In fact the manuscript was only recently rediscovered in Vienna and given its modern premiere in 2007. It departs from Handel’s version (which follows the story in Ovid) in that Jupiter brings Semele to life again after his overpowering appearance to her, and resolves only to remain friends with her, to placate Juno’s jealous rages, thereby making a moral point about marital fidelity. It also omits any reference to the fact that Semele is the mother of Bacchus – whom Jupiter salvaged from the ashes – and therefore any allegorical originating story for the introduction of wine to the world.

The Compagnia de Violini, led by Alessandro Ciccolini, instilled an engaging, dramatic energy and flair in Hasse’s sequence of arias and recitatives which are virtually as technically accomplished as any by Handel (and to that extent he remains an underestimated composer) but lack the same level of variety and spark of genius. The group comprised five strings (one to a part), theorbo, and two harpsichords, and so the relatively high proportion of plucked timbres ensured a frequently robust, Vivaldian vigour to some of the music, not least the opening of the Sinfonia (in a tripartite fast-slow-fast form like many Baroque Italian operas, but unlike the ‘French’ overtures of Handel’s).  With few instrumentalists the textures of some arias sounded depleted, and more contrast would also have been welcome, for instance the sylvan atmosphere of Semele’s aria ‘Dolce spira il venticello’ could have benefited from a gentler, unhurried rendition. But it was a creditable achievement to have enlivened so many arias with a distinctive character, often realising the mood or Affekt intended by the composer in each case, such as the pompous tread of Juno’s accompanied recitative which follows the Sinfonia, or the flirtatious manner of her aria when she reminds Jupiter of her status as his wife and so should not suffer the humiliation of his adultery.

In the title-role Arianna Vendittelli was bold and persuasive, not needing to resort to any stereotypical coquetry in her delivery but projecting her music confidently as she questions Jupiter’s sincerity and fidelity to her. She made the simplicity and directness of the slow ‘Taccio, sospiro e gemo’ sound especially worthy of Handel when composing in a similar vein. Robert Invernizzi expressed Juno’s imperious and rightful dignity as the chief goddess through subtler means than a merely forceful volley of notes, but rather by the exemplary, seamless control of some long melismatic lines Hasse wrote for the part (presumably with the capabilities of a particular singer in mind) as the music is notably idiomatic in that respect. The brittle quality of Sonia Prina’s singing is perhaps not to every listener’s taste, but there was no doubting her technical virtuosity as she ranged across some florid, vivid music, and successfully captured a variety of emotions and situations on the part of Jupiter – tellingly defensive as he impatiently wards off Juno’s accusations in ‘Troppo, o sposa’, seductively sustained in ‘Pupille serene’ addressed lovingly to Semele, and sorrowful as he laments the tragedy which befalls her.

Microphones were present, perhaps to preserve this lively and worthwhile performance on record. With a seeming revival of interest in musical settings of the Semele story, shown by increasing numbers of productions of Handel’s originally unstaged oratorio, the Academy of Ancient Music’s recent recording of John Eccles’s English opera, maybe an ensemble will also present Antonio de Literes’s Spanish zarzuela Jupiter y Semele to provide a fascinating comparison with Hasse’s charming Neapolitan offering.

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