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John Eccles: Semele review – pre-Handel opera is a colourful musical gem | Opera

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What if something – say, the lack of a visa-free touring agreement – had stopped Handel coming to London in 1711, and the German composer with the Italian style had never effected his transformation of English opera? What would London audiences have applauded instead? Our impression of the art form in England in the early 18th century has long been patchy, but it’s a good deal more joined-up and colourful thanks to this recording of John Eccles’s 1706 opera Semele, impeccably produced by the Academy of Ancient Music, the Cambridge Handel Opera Company and Cambridge Early Music.

John Eccles: Semele album cover

The ghost of Handel is inescapable given that his own Semele, written nearly four decades later, likewise sets William Congreve’s libretto. Semele is the mythical mortal seduced by Jupiter who is tricked into bringing about her own destruction by insisting he appear to her in his true, scorching form. But where Handel tells the story with a light-hearted touch, and makes it easy to play Semele as an ambitious airhead who gets her just deserts, Eccles takes things more seriously, giving us at the end a pity-inducing death scene for the title character preceded by a poignant expression of genuine regret from Jupiter.

The style is closer to that of Purcell, Eccles’s former colleague in the world of London theatre music, than to Handel: arias are short and the story moves forward quickly. Some of the best moments fall to jealous, scheming Juno, whose scenes spring to life more readily than some of the others; the role is dispatched here with brilliant imperiousness by Helen Charlston. The role of Semele herself is beautifully sung by Anna Dennis, and the rest of the large cast is excellent, too. Julian Perkins conducts them and the AAM players in a performance that’s gratifyingly light on its feet.

Eccles never got to see Semele staged; theatre politics delayed its premiere and then changing fashions left it behind. Its neglect may not have robbed us of an aria of the depth of Dido’s Lament, or indeed of Handel’s setting of Semele’s “Oh sleep why dost thou leave me”, but there’s plenty of rewarding music, and it ought to make a more convincing drama than any of Purcell’s theatrical works except Dido, were it to be staged. This isn’t the work’s first recording, but it is the first major one with professional forces, and it’s good enough to put this Semele, and its composer, firmly on the map.

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