Cambridge Independent review of Semele

News and Reviews

Review of Eccles's Semele

29 November 2019

‘…So this was something of an event and, as it turned out, an event outstanding in every conceivable way.

First of all, Eccles’s Semele is a work of great beauty and intelligence so that one found oneself constantly asking (rather as with Handel’s Brockes Passion) how it had managed to fall through the net for so long.

Julian Perkins, Artistic Director of CHOC, conducted the orchestra from the harpsichord, and the orchestra was joined by a uniformly excellent cast of singers who presented the opera, a work at once tragic, comic and satirical with each of these elements in performance emerging in exactly the right proportions.

Myths were the vehicles by which men originally represented archetypal situations, and stories describing relationships between mankind and its gods seem to have been ways of acknowledging the twofold nature of man.

Semele loves Jupiter, a god. Jupiter establishes her in a palace for love-making; another example would be the palace the god Cupid makes for his mortal love, Psyche.

An undertone of sexuality pervades Congreve’s libretto (the same one used by Handel), accentuated by Héloïse Bernard’s (Iris) emphasis on ‘erected’ (‘Behold a new-erected Palace rise’) and Cupid’s description of the post-coital Semele.

Here it’s worth adding that Mezzo-Soprano, Bethany Horak-Hallett’s (Cupid) delivery of her only four lines in the opera revealed such a beautiful voice as to be typical of how the briefest as well as the lengthiest casting roles were all of a piece in the consistency of the production’s excellence.

The voice of Mezzo-Soprano Helen Charlston (Juno) hit astonishing heights in passages such as ‘Somnus, arise’ and ‘above measure is the pleasure’, while Soprano Anna Dennis leant appropriate drama to the role of Semele, especially in the petulance of her sequence demanding immortality from Jupiter.

Semele (‘Aiming at immortality with dangerous ambition’) reveals all the faults and foibles which would have rung alarm bells in the early eighteenth century. Pope argued that Man should be content with his station. (’Why has not Man a microscopic eye? For this plain reason, Man is not a fly’). Pride, hubris, was the cardinal sin, and Semele is lured into committing it by the vengeful Juno (Myself I shall adore, / If I persist in gazing; / No object sure before / Was ever half so pleasing’).

Art was required to be moral (‘Hence satire rose, that just the medium hit, / And heals with morals what it hurts with wit’) so the joyful proclamation by Apollo of the age of Bacchus (child of Jupiter and the now defunct Semele) is to be taken with a pinch of salt perhaps ( ‘. . when Bacchus is born, Love’s Reign’s at an end’). As is known, wine enhancing desire, takes away the performance.

The outstanding range of superb voices and an orchestra of flawless period authenticity made it a privilege for the audience to be present at this masterful production. This is the one which will no doubt ensure that John Eccles’s Semele goes on to enjoy a reputation it so much deserves.’

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Opera Magazine review of Semele

News and Reviews

Review of Eccles's Semele

29 November 2019

The Academy of Ancient Music did full justice to the score, under the direction of Julian Perkins on the harpsichord, with Peter Holman playing the harpsichord continuo. Virtuoso wielding of the thunder sheet by Elaine So provided essential punctuation to Semele’s rise and fall.

All the vocal soloists were excellent. Anna Dennis sang Semele with her pure, powerful soprano and was a commanding stage presence. She has the ability to take rather ordinary notes and give them point and meaning. The mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston did full justice to the role of the furious Juno, full of spiteful passion, her coloratura passages proving her to be the real prima donna here.

The baritone Richard Burkhard was a convincing Jupiter, smooth and resonant. Semele’s abandoned swain Athamas was sung by William Wallace in a pleasing tenor and the infatuated Ino by Aoife Miskelly, employing light operatic vibrato in an affecting ‘You’ve undone me’. Héloïse Bernard’s light, sweet soprano made her a beguiling Iris with real personality. Cupid suffered the loss of an aria but Bethany Horak-Hallett’s rich soprano shone. The tenor Rory Carver projected well as the Second Priest/First Augur and the remaining low voices – including Christopher Foster as Somnus, Jonathan Brown as Cadmus and Graeme Broadbent as the Chief Priest – carried off their roles with conviction. As Apollo announcing the birth of Bacchus, the baritone Jolyon Loy was a suave, commanding and suitably joyful presence.

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