Handel's Semele

Early Opera Company

3 starsCadogan Hall, 1 November 2007

Handel's Semele at Cadogan Hall: Elizabeth Watts -  opera review

'Myself I shall adore' sang Elizabeth Watts in the title role at this concert performance of Handel's Semele, and one can't really blame her. The British soprano has the complete package: a ravishingly beautiful voice, the technique to negotiate even the most taxing of Handel showcase arias, great looks and a bubbly personality. When she was onstage in this presentation by the Early Opera Company, the atmosphere at Cadogan Hall was tremendous.

Unfortunately, the performance as a whole veered from truly engaging to seriously dull - one extreme to the other - all night. Handel is a deceptive composer: the music sounds so easy but many decisions have to be made in mounting a performances of his vocal works, and in this case I feel that some of the company's decisions were to the detriment of the performance.

But if nothing else, it made me want to sit down and study Semele in greater detail. Though the programme told us nothing about the piece - a shame to be so inadequate in this respect when both the compositional history and details of the cuts made for this performance would have enhanced the audience's engagement with it - Semele is clearly one of Handel's most intriguing dramatic vocal works. Composed in 1743 in the course of four weeks (between 3 June and 4 July), it was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on 10 February 1744. It was based on William Congreve's opera libretto of the same name from 1707 (which took its theme from Ovid's Metamorphoses) but was significantly modified by Handel for his oratorio. That Handel should turn to a classical theme was quite natural because even his Biblical oratorios share a lot with Greek tragedy in terms of style and presentation, yet early audiences were evidently against the work for one of two reasons. To the religiously puritanical set, it was shocking for Handel to present an oratorio on a secular theme during Lent. To the musical purists, Semele should have been a 'pure' Italian opera rather than an English oratorio. In order to resuscitate the work's fortunes, for its performances in December of the same year Handel removed the racier lyrics and some of the arias were sung in Italian.

Yet the oratorio form allowed Handel a greater flexibility than is often the case in his Italian operas of the 1720s. The weight given to the chorus means that there is more contrast between grand and intimate numbers, as well as providing the piece with a putative 'Greek chorus'. Conversely, the existence of the chorus in an observational, dramatically static role is the reason why Semele is categorically an oratorio and not an opera. Yet the operatic frequently seeps in: fourteen of the twenty-five arias are in da capo form, a characteristic of opera seria but not normal in an oratorio. There are some unusual ensemble numbers, which are normally kept to a minimum in Handel's earlier operas; in particular, a quartet in the first act is striking for the way in which it starts off in King Cadmus' hands but ends up in Ino's. The other interesting aspect of Semele is the amount of accompanied recitative, which connects the big closed numbers more fluidly than the recitativo secco that abounds in some of the composer's other pieces. In all, this is a work worthy of further investigation, and I applaud the Early Opera Company for undertaking a complete new recording on three CDs (featuring a similar cast but with Rosemary Joshua rather than Elizabeth Watts), the first on period instruments.

However, this concert performance presented a text that was far from complete. Some of the cuts were understandable, such as the omission of the Gavotte from the long Overture sequence, but in an attempt to get us out of the concert hall before 10.30 there were a number of more crucial casualties. Although the da capo aria is the basic constituent of the work, in most cases both the B section and the repeated A section were cut. This left us without many of the characters' conflicts, as did the foreshortening of the Jupiter-Semele encounter in Act III. Athamas was left with much less to sing in Act I than should be the case, and his third-act aria was completely omitted (so much for the flippant synopsis' claim that 'Athamas sings a jaunty and terribly inappropriate song'). In light of this, I wondered whether countertenor Stephen Wallace was slightly ill: he seemed unconfident and did not project strongly throughout the performance. If that is not the explanation, then the tessitura of Athamas' music is just too low for Wallace, because it rarely took him into the soprano register where he produces his loveliest tone colours and it kept forcing him into his tenor range.

Handel's Semele at Cadogan Hall: Elizabeth Watts -  opera review

The question of instrumental configuration on the stage troubled me at the start, as did the choice of instruments for the continuo sometimes. The two violin sections were adjacent to one another, but with so much contrapuntal writing between the first and second violins it might have been more effective to have them opposite each other on the stage so that the distinct voices could be heard. It was wonderful to have a period bassoon, but again the placing at the back of the stage behind the excellent cello and theorbo players meant that we did not get the benefit of the sound; similarly, having the oboes behind the violins muted their sound, so that the strings were always favoured. The solo cello, horns and trumpets were superb, but I felt the stormy timpani part was slightly overdone and little else could be heard at one point. Christian Curnyn's conducting of a generally young cast was inspiring but at times I would have liked more content from his harpsichord playing, which tended to stop when he wanted to conduct (it might have been better to have a second harpsichordist to fill out the texture). The tempi were well-judged on the whole, though the first act sagged terribly and sometimes Curnyn rushed too much in an attempt to compensate for the enervation of some of the slow numbers. The choral singing was hearty but for me lacked clarity and subtlety. Indeed, that was my reaction to the evening as a whole: enthusiastic but unrefined.

Against Elizabeth Watts singing in radiant voice and delivering a delightfully cheeky 'Endless Pleasure', none of the other singers matched up. There seemed little agreement even to whether this was a concert or a semi-staging: Hilary Summers suggested the dual roles of Ino and Juno through a drastic change of dress and excessive slapstick comedy, but Stephen Wallace barely moved a muscle and most of the singers were very score-bound. Eventually Summers provoked a more communicative performance from the rest of the performers, and she has a splendid sense of rhythm for the baroque; her voice is not entirely to my taste in this music, however. Brindley Sherratt is always a reliable singer and had all the notes within his grasp as Cadmus/Somnus in this performance, but to me his gloriously resonant bass was not shown off at its best. When he occasionally hit a low A, we got a tantalising glimpse of where his voice is special. Tenor Ed Lyon doubled as Jupiter and Apollo, roles which would suit Ian Bostridge down to the ground: what I missed here was lyricism and a glowing legato, though Lyon was always sensitive to the text. Chorus member Susan Gilmour-Bailey did herself proud as Iris, acting and singing with confidence and flair, though she was sometimes a little below the note.

But it was Elizabeth Watts' evening. Whether singing a virtuoso aria with lavish fioritura and a strong high C ('Myself I Shall Adore') or performing a slow, understated aria with admirable restraint and leaping the interval of a ninth with ease ('O Jove!'), Watts thoroughly impressed and confirmed her status as one of the most talented and important young singers in the world today. Don't miss her Rosenblatt Recital on 13 November at St John's Smith Square; she returns to Cadogan Hall on 20 November for Mozart arias and Strauss orchestral songs. Meanwhile, my hot ticket for autumn 2008 is a new production of Le nozze di Figaro at Welsh National Opera, in which Watts will play Susanna to Rebecca Evans' Countess. It promises to be riveting.

By Dominic McHugh

Read recent opera reviews, including ENO's Carmen and Poppea, and The Royal Opera's Ring Cycle and Rita, here.