BBC Music review of Semele

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Review of Eccles's Semele

01 March 2021

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

A lost masterpiece of English opera revived

Julian Perkins and Cambridge Early Opera dust off John Eccles’s 1706 Semele – and it’s a scintillating triumph, says Berta Joncus

Eccles' Semele

Anna Dennis (soprano)
Richard Burkhard (baritone)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Héloïse Bernard (soprano)
Graeme Broadbent (bass)
Cambridge Early Opera
Academy of Ancient Music
Julian Perkins
AAM AAM012   121:27 mins (2 discs)

John Eccles’s sexy, sparkling opera bursts to life – finally! Shelved in 1706, Semele has never been professionally recorded, so this production was worth waiting for. Cast, band, director and sound are all top-notch, restoring Eccles’s score to its full glory.

The project grew out of Julian Perkins’s November 2019 Cambridge Handel Opera Company concert performance, with rising-star soloists singing alongside the more seasoned professional names. It’s astonishing that Eccles’s Semele is obscure: the libretto, by William Congreve, is as yummy as Eccles’s music. Adapting Ovid, Congreve has Semele joyously join Jupiter in illicit love, escaping thereby an unwanted earthly match. Jupiter’s enraged wife Juno, in the guise of Semele’s sister, goads Semele to trap Jupiter into granting her wish that he show himself to her as a god, which kills her.

Thanks to Perkins’s deft casting, each principal’s vocalism and dramatis persona are wonderfully matched. As Semele, Anna Dennis is at first seductive in her delicacy, then frightening in her steely-toned ambition. Dark-timbred mezzo soprano Helen Charlston’s Juno flares magnificently, unafraid to sound ugly when furious. Baritone Richard Burkhard captures Congreve’s sensual yet

thoughtful Jupiter, texturing every word. The show-stealer is soprano Héloïse Bernard who, as Juno’s servant Iris, forges riveting moments from modest material, such as ‘Thither Flora the Fair’. In this brief chaconne, Bernard drapes each stanza in increasingly gorgeous embellishments, dropping dramatically into chest register for her last verse.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s playing is just as fascinating. Perkins directs from the harpsichord with a demonic intensity. When individual band members take over the storytelling, their solos gild Eccles’s invention with their own. Lost instrumental numbers – symphonies, dances, ritornellos – known on the page only from stage directions, are here taken from other Eccles compositions. They give the AAM further opportunity to strut, from the regal Overture (from his Rinaldo and Armida), to the sparkling ‘Dance of the Zephyrs’ (from his Aires).


Helen Charlston's Juno flares magnificently, unafraid to sound ugly when furious


Eccles’s solo and instrumental writing are both exquisite, but he experiments most boldly in his vocal ensembles. In these, catchy tunes and rhythms belie the sophistication of counterpoint and motivic networking as entwined solo voices typically yield to regal choruses or symphonies.

Perkins commands a gamut of responses to the ensembles’ charms, from crystal-clear voicing to big, fat homophonic swells. The Act I quartet ‘Why dost thou thus untimely grieve?’, in which four characters each express a different foreboding, captures both Eccles’s originality and the performers’ brilliance: after introducing the common theme, the soloists, taking their cue from Perkins’s keyboard playing, gently decelerate their points of imitation to bring the quartet to a brooding close.

With early career vocalists among the cast, there are minor imperfections, but this is a superb reconstruction of a lost Eccles masterpiece.

PERFORMANCE

★★★★★

RECORDING

★★★★★

An interview with Julian Perkins

Why has Eccles’s version of this story been so neglected?

When people think of Semele, they inevitably think of Handel’s version. When Handel came to England he conquered everything before him. With this opera by Eccles, it’s an intriguing ‘what if?’ in musical history; what would have happened had Handel not come to England?

How different are Handel and Eccles’s versions?

This is a very different work to Handel’s. In Handel’s version the character of Semele comes across as a sort of voluptuous sex-kitten; it’s so exuberant, with its wonderfully florid, excessive vocal runs. Eccles captures a much darker, more brooding Semele; and it’s probably worth remembering William Congreve worked with Eccles on this libretto, so there was a synergy between composer and librettist. Handel’s is based on Congreve, but the composer adapted it, plus there’s text by Pope and others in there.

Also, Eccles’s recitatives are so detailed, which comes from a more Monteverdi style of recitative writing. Handel’s was more of a broad brush.

Were you surprised by what you discovered in Eccles’s work?

I was struck by Eccles’s uncanny ability to differentiate his writing for all the different singers – there are 15 different roles. So it made casting a wonderful challenge. It’s always going to be compared to Handel’s masterpiece, but I think what also surprised me was the fact that it’s such a direct but concise work, but very nuanced at the same time. For an opera, a lot of drama is packed into a relatively short amount of time.

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