Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset – Semele

Semele – Opera in three acts to William Congreve’s libretto after Ovid

Semele – Danielle de Niese
Iris – Jaël Azzaretti
Juno / Ino – Vivica Genaux
Athamas – Stephen Wallace
Jupiter – Richard Croft
Cadmus / Somnus – Peter Rose
Cupid – Claire Debono
Apollo – Sébastien Droy

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Choir

Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 8 July, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As part of the Barbican Centre’s Great Performers series, we heard Handel’s witty opera (or oratorio) “Semele” (one of the last that he wrote), performed by the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, directed from the harpsichord by its founder Christophe Rousset.

Christophe Rousset. ©Eric LarrayadieuThe performance, including two intervals, lasted some four hours, yet felt much less, and credit to Rousset’s vivid and imaginative way with Handel’s colourful scoring, which helped to give plenty of drive to the story. Danielle de Niese as Semele did not have the vocal prowess necessary. Her voice is too breathy, and lacked pureness of tone; a lot of the delivery was smudged and too often she felt constricted and unvaried. Her coloratura was somewhat diminished, too. Of course, the role is fiendish, and if nothing else she brought conviction to the part.

Vivica Genaux. Photograph: Virgin Classics/Harry HeleotisVivica Genaux, who sang Juno (wife of Jupiter) and Ino (sister of Semele) was in another league. Hers was a compelling presence, and as the jealous and furious wife of Jupiter – jealous because Semele is in love with Jupiter, who has whisked her to a newly-built fortress – she gave the part an ideal darkness and vindictiveness.

Someone else singing two parts was Peter Rose, who appeared at the beginning as Semele’s father Cadmus, King of Thebes, and at the end as Somnus, who grants Juno the tools for her vengence against Jupiter. Rose’s performance was notable for its clarity of diction and the penetrative power of his voice, always commanding and beautifully rendered. There was plenty of acting, too, from Rose as the slumbering Somnus, and this reflected the finesse of William Congreve’s libretto.

Countertenor Stephen Wallace was Semele’s betrothed (Prince Athamus), and had some difficulty in producing volume, clarity and pitch perfect. As Jupiter, Richard Croft also had a small voice that never seemed to fill the part adequately enough, and, despite some dazzling technique, characterisation was lacking. He had some difficulty in plumbing the depths necessary in ‘Lay your doubts and fears aside’. Claire Debono’s Cupid was fun, and in his brief appearance at the very end, Sébastien Droy looked and sounded very fine as Apollo, who brings some happiness out of Semele’s destruction (she rises as Bacchus, god of wine).

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Choir sang with conviction and thrillingly so. But, it was the instrumentalists who stole the show, and Rousset’s assuredness resulted in a compelling performance. In particular, the organ sounded ‘just right’, and the ‘authentic’ horns and trumpets, the latter’s fanfares at the end thrilling, were played with clarity and aplomb.

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