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Handel – Semele

Semele – Rosemary Joshua soprano
Ino / Juno – Hilary Summers contralto
Cadmus / Somnus – Brindley Sherratt bass
Athamus – Stephen Wallace counter-tenor
Jupiter / Apollo – Richard Croft tenor
Iris – Gail Pearson soprano
Early Opera Company – cond Christian Curnyn

Chandos Chaconne – CHAN 0745(3) [Recorded April 2007 – 3 CDs – 170 mins]

Semele (HWV 58), written late in Handel’s career, is a work of considerable maturity which, despite its label of secular oratorio, is one of his most effective dramatic works and deservedly popular on stage. It has been surprisingly neglected of late by the recording companies in favour of a seemingly endless stream of lesser known, and dare I say, less well rounded pieces. 

So the first complete recording on period instruments* is more than welcome, particularly when it is in the safe hands of Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company.  The overture sets off at a lively pace and I could picture Curnyn, who is one of my favourite conductors to watch, moving sinuously as though he were a living part of the music.

He has assembled a small but hand picked cast for this recording, they have to cope with a good deal of doubling of roles; the brief appearance of Cupid is omitted. 

The title role is sung by Rosemary Joshua on the top form.   Her voice soars to scintillating heights and she adds ornamentation with apparently effortless ease. Endless Pleasure and Myself I shall adore are of course her two well known showpiece arias, but it’s with the often omitted The morning lark that she pours out a full seven minutes of glorious song, imitating that most peerless of birds. 

Richard Croft provides staunch support as her Jupiter, delivering the ever-popular Where’er you walk effectively, though I would have liked clearer diction.   Stephen Wallace is a charming Athamus, gently pleading in his hapless situation, and Gail Pearson makes full use of the opportunities afforded by Iris, very pure toned in There from mortal cares retiring painting a glorious sound picture of Semele’s perfect resting place. 

Brindley Sherratt achieves a good contrast between the statesman like Cadmus and the wonderfully dozy Somnus, reviling the loathsome light, but the real heroine of the cast is contralto Hilary Summers, who sings Ino and Juno.  Both these roles call for some spectacular singing, but what makes the feat of doubling them up so special is that they lie at opposite ends of the mezzo scale:  the one calling for a real gloss at the top of the voice, and the other for power in the lower register. 

I was also fortunate enough to see her repeat the feat recently on the Cadogan Hall platform, where she also conveyed the physical contrast with the addition of a pair of spectacles for the down-trodden Ino, and spiky heeled shoes for the domineering Juno.

The chorus and orchestra give their all – it’s a fully satisfying recording.

Serena Fenwick

John Eliot Gardiner’s celebrated 1981 recording with the English Baroque Soloists is more than forty minutes shorter [Erato 2292-45982-2].