This new recording of Handel's Semele comes hot on the heels of a recent concert performance of the work, given by the same orchestral forces, and much of the same cast, at Cadogan Hall. Having read our review of that concert, the recording appears to suffer from many of the same shortcomings, without enjoying the major redeeming feature of the live performance, namely Elizabeth Watts in the title role.
On the present recording it is Rosemary Joshua who sings Semele. She despatches all of her music with efficiency and some finesse, but with very little of the sparkle, emotional depth or personality one would like to hear in this role. The character is a complex one, who experiences various degrees of desperation, gentle yearning, joy, anger, hubris and fear throughout the oratorio. None of these nuances are explored by Joshua in any meaningful way, although she has no apparent difficulties with this testing role in terms of pure singing. The aria 'O sleep, why dost thou leave me' is a case in point. There is a lengthy melisma on the word 'wand'ring' which I don't think I had ever heard before sung in one breath. But I have also never heard a rendition of this aria quite so lacking in grace or the languid sensuality it calls for.
Joshua does not appear to engage with the text. The same is true of a very different kind of aria, the coloratura spectacular 'Myself I shall adore'. Being short on words, and long on notes, this aria can pall rather. To my ears, even in the most inspired performance, once the initial joke has been made and the first few phrases of dazzling coloratura have been tossed off, the da capo is rarely welcome. This rendition of the aria fails to engage from the start even if it is well sung and treated to some attractive ornamentation in the reprise of the A section. Joshua's stage performances of the role at English National Opera did not suffer from this same vacuousness – I recall a strong dramatic instinct and real interpretative involvement. Roles usually develop favourably over time with singers, but the reverse appears to be true in this case.
This may be partly due to the conducting of Christian Curnyn, which is lack-lustre and pedestrian throughout. There is very little in the way of forward movement or momentum, which is so essential in dance-form inspired baroque music. The orchestral playing, on period instruments, is mostly of a very high standard and the sonority created by the players is excellent. But the phrasing as influenced by Curnyn is rarely better than plodding. The continuo playing in arias such as 'Turn, hopeless lover' feels perfunctory and lacking in sensitivity or fluidity, aside from the merest ritardandi at the ends of numbers. It may be the case that Curnyn's approach to authentic performance of baroque music aligns itself with the anti-romantic, streamlined approach represented by the likes of Roger Norrington – the antithesis of an artist like Dan Laurin for example, who fills his interpretations up with extravagant rubato and experiments with pitch, also in the name of authenticity. But Curnyn's results here are not the crisp, fresh clarity I presume he was aiming for and which Norrington tends to get. Rather, it all sounds like the players and some of the singers have no interest in what they are doing. Consequently, it is very difficult for the listener to feel engaged either.
Beside Rosemary Joshua, there is more character in the performances from the rest of the cast, with particularly pleasing contributions from Stephen Wallace as Athamas and Brindley Sherratt as Cadmus and Somnus. Hilary Summers, as Ino and Juno, gives the most vivid reading of all, but her voice has a peculiar quality about it that reminds me more of a male falsetto than a true contralto and this makes for disconcerting listening. Richard Croft as Jupiter is sounding a little past his best, the voice having darkened pleasingly in the lower ranges, but sounding uncomfortable and thinner higher up. He is unable to spin the line as one would wish for in the celebrated aria, 'Where'er you walk', although he remains impressive in coloratura passages. There are crystal clear words from all cast members.
The chorus makes an excellent contribution to this recording, and the only times where I feel any real involvement is when they are singing. The fact that the piece is presented as complete as I have heard undoubtedly works in this recording's favour. However, for me, there is no single aspect of this performance that is not surpassed by at least one of the existing, readily available recordings on the market, and I find it difficult to recommend the Curnyn recording above any of the other fine versions of this work.
By John Woods