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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Handel: Semele

05/11/2014 1:00 pm
05/11/2014 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

Is George Frideric Handel's Semele (1744) a "secular oratorio" or is it an opera in disguise? Handel gave up writing Italian opere serie for the London stage in 1741. In preserving his Italianate style in Semele, Handel created what is arguably the first great English opera. Its hit song "Where'er You Walk," has been a vocal soloist's vehicle for generations, but the complete work has been infrequently performed or recorded. That's difficult to understand, because the splendid choral numbers certainly recommend it for performance by choral societies. Perhaps it was the story, taken from the Latin poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, which seemed rather silly. The Restoration dramatist William Congreve gave a comic treatment to the love triangle between the mortal maiden Semele, the goddess Juno and her divine philandering husband Jupiter. Handel wrought wonders in bringing Congreve's verse to life.

Baroque specialist John Eliot Gardiner put in a fine interpretation of Handel's score, with only a couple of cuts. Gardiner directed his own period instrumental ensemble, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. The 1981 studio taping found its way onto two Erato compact discs in 1993. Gardiner's Semele went over the air on Sunday, June 1, 2008.

Another fine recording of Semele is the one with Johannes Somary conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and Amor Artis Chorale. The cast of vocal soloists included the best English singers of the time. Released in 1973, it was available in the US on Vanguard LP's. It was reissued in CD format in 2007 through another later American label Alto/Musical Concepts. In this recording Semele is soprano Sheila Armstrong, Juno contralto Helen Watts and tenor Robert Tear is Jupiter. Somary's interpretation is historically informed, although the instrumentalists don't play baroque period instruments. The continuo keyboard stylings of Harold Lester, playing harpsichord and organ,are particularly noteworthy. Somary also gives us Handel's complete score.