Elizabeth Watts, winner of the Rosenblatt Recital prize at this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World, was just one of the attractions of this concert performance of Handel’s Semele in the intimate surroundings of London’s newest venue.
The opera, with its Gods and mortals and themes of vanity, over-reaching ambition and retribution laced through with sauciness, is quite a draw in itself.
While over at Covent Garden, Wotan and Fricka have been bickering over the God’s constant infidelities, their Roman counterparts here act out the same rituals in a far more debonair manner. Juno, furious at Jupiter’s dalliance with the mortal princess Semele, hatches a plot to tip the silly girl’s craving for immortality into self-destruction and oblivion.
The almost chamber-like delicacy of the score, and a libretto based on a version of the legend by William Congreve, has something of an oratorio feel that lends itself to this sort of small-scale presentation. Christian Curnyn, directing the Early Opera Company‘s limited forces from the harpsichord, presided over a fleet-footed performance, full of sparkle and period detail.
The evening got off to a low-key start, not fully springing to life until the second act. It’s hard to believe that Stephen Wallace‘s slightly insecure counter-tenor could have filled a larger space than Cadogan Hall and there was at first a general tentativeness to some of the vocal performances. In the title role, Elizabeth Watts‘ “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love” wasn’t as abandoned as it might have been but by “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me”, with its lovely cello and theorbo accompaniment, her tone was quite ravishing. With the showy coloratura of “Myself I shall adore”, she had also found an attractive perkiness, aided by the camp posturings of Hilary Summers‘ imposing Juno.
Summers’ glammed-up Goddess contrasted well with her dowdy Ino, a sensible doubling as the former at one point disguises herself as the latter. Ed Lyon was a lithe and lyrical Jupiter, and the most famous number “Where’er you Walk” a delight, while Brindley Sherratt‘s rich bass was used to great effect as both King Cadmus and the sleepy god Somnos. Leaving her place in the 16-piece chorus (excellent), Susan Gilmour-Bailey was a sparky sidekick to the conniving Juno.
Even the frazzling to a cinder of the overweening Semele, as she insists on seeing the God in his full glory, barely interrupts the jollity of the piece, as life goes on, her sister runs off with her intended and Bacchus is born from the unfortunate girl’s ashes, ending the opera awash with wine and song.
Mounted as a launch for EOC’s new CD release of Semele on the Chandos label (with by and large the same cast), the performance was a delightful, if at times light-weight, foray into Handel’s flightier side.