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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Cambridge Independent review of Semele

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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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IOCO review of Rodelinda

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Review of Handel's Rodelinda

13 April 2018

Hats off to talented artistic director Julian Perkins for resurrecting the Cambridge Handel Opera Company, which had staged annual Handel productions from 1985 to 2013 in the historic university city. He plans to alternate operas by Handel with those of his contemporaries, and if this production of Rodelinda is anything to go by, audiences can look forward to historically informed and artistically rewarding productions in the coming years.

Simon Bejer has designed the production simply but effectively, entirely in blood red, black and white. Costumes are loosely early 17th-century – ruffs, doublet and hose, the staging minimal, but hung with red draperies. Sung in English, it is expertly accompanied from the pit by period instruments laid out as an 18th-century opera orchestra, with a harpsichord and bass instrument on each side of the pit, and conducted by Julian Perkins.

Alice Privett never disappoints as the faithful wife Rodelinda. Her opening lament for her, supposedly, dead husband Bertarido, is impressive in its rich, deep colours, and she excels both in the passionate anger required when resisting the advances of the usurper Grimoaldo  and in the more calm set-piece arias.

Her unwelcome suitor, Grimoaldo (tenor William Wallace), white-faced and weak minded, comes into his own in Act 2 when his anger at finding Rodelinda and Bertarido together brings forth vehement coloratura – the only time spontaneous applause was drawn from an otherwise rather reserved audience. His adviser Garibaldo is sung by baritone Nicholas Morris, who from the first has the ability to hold the stage with both his effective acting and his characterful voice. Ida Ränzlöv who sings ‘bad girl’ Eduige, dressed for the part in black vinyl skin-tight trousers and a slashed farthingale, enters into the role with almost comic effect, rolling the „R“ of Rodelinda scornfully and cheekily unlacing Unolfo’s doublet.

It is left till Act 1 Scene 2 before we hear a counter-tenor voice – that of Bertarido, in hiding, walking among the tombs. …William Towers soon captivates the audience with his beautifully controlled long notes, and his Act 2 aria ‘Nature’s voice replying’, each line echoed from the circle by recorders and flute, is beautifully accomplished. Tom Scott-Cowell, as Unolfo, has the other countertenor role and delights the audience with Act 2 aria ‘Daylight is dawning’ just before the interval.

For me, however, the musical high point of the opera was Rodelinda and Bertarido’s duet at the end of Act 2 ‘I embrace you’, movingly sung in their separate dungeons, with flawless ensemble and both voices blending seamlessly.

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Cambridge Independent review of Rodelinda

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Review of Handel's Rodelinda

6 April 2018

Productions of Handel’s operas don’t get much better than this one.

The uniformly brilliant cast and accomplished period orchestra in this beautiful performance created a magical weld, truly a “fusion of music and stage” in the Company’s own terms. The stage sets, managing somehow to be at once sumptuous and spare, were a striking scarlet and black; costumes and lighting effects visually arresting.

Operas of this kind consist mainly of a series of solo arias allotted to each of the prominent cast members, space unfortunately forbidding a detailed rehearsal of the high points in this lengthy (more than three hours) sequence, but there were many. The contributions of Rodelinda (Alice Privett), Garibaldo (Nicholas Morris), Grimoaldo (William Wallace), Bertarido (William Towers) and Eduige (Ida Ranzlov) were all absolutely outstanding.

Artistic director, Julian Perkins, conducted the orchestra from the harpsichord, where the beauty of Handel’s score, his ear for sonority, his potent gaps and silences between pieces of music, his changes of texture, were allowed to amaze us all over again.

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American Handel Society review of Rodelinda

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Review of Handel's Rodelinda

6 April 2018

Performed in an English translation by Andrew Jones with some adaptions, the diction was excellent. Wallace, in the role of Grimoaldo, came fully into his own. Although Ahasverus (in Esther) and Grimoaldo are similar roles, portraying a king badly served by an evil, self-serving minister, only in the longer Rodelinda does the character get the chance to reflect upon his actions. In fact, the mirrors on the stage seemed to point specifically to the need for reflection and self-awareness among all the characters. Nicholas Morris (bass) played the evil minister Garibaldo with single-minded precision: at one point he physically moved Grimoaldo across the stage in an attempt to make him behave in cruel fashion. I’ve probably seen more theatrical productions of Rodelinda than any Handel opera, but I’ve never seen the character of Eduige (sung by Ida Ränzlöv) so fully inhabit her early role as one of the co-conspirators with Grimoaldo in the downfall of her brother Bertarido and then, regretting her earlier actions, join with Rodelinda to effect his restitution. Rodelinda (Privett) was regal and fearless in her dealings with Grimoaldo and Garibaldo, while Bertarido (played by countertenor William Towers) made poor decisions, jumped to false conclusions, and needed to be guided in his actions by his friend Unulfo.

…the musical highlight of my entire week, however, was the messa di voce with which Towers, as Bertarido, began his first aria, ”Dov’è sei” (”Oh, where are you”). Beginning pianissimo, Towers made a slow crescendo, never losing the purity of the note, and then, miraculously, an equally long decrescendo back to the original volume, and still without a break, continued the full phrase to the end. I was not expecting this, and time seemed to stand still.

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Opera Now review of Rodelinda

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Review of Handel's Rodelinda

6 April 2018

Director Max Hoehn’s production was worthy of one of the highest accolades, in my book; namely, being so effective in its simplicity as almost not to be noticed. Black predominated throughout, with carefully placed swathes of scarlet; the effect was deliberately oppressive on the eyes, which rendered all the more effective the moments when changes of colour were introduced. Gestures and movement had clear overtones of baroque stagecraft, while remaining unaffected and natural…

I ought not to conclude without saying that the performance was given in English (without surtitles), in a translation based on one by AVJ [Dr Andrew Jones] – but the fact that I have left this revelation to the very end signifies how untroubling the performance language was in the face of such a direct, powerful production.

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Classical Music review of Rodelinda

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Review of Handel's Rodelinda

6 April 2018

The young cast – hand-picked by Perkins, who led the medium-sized orchestra (half of whom were undergraduate or postgraduate students, playing alongside established professionals) from the harpsichord with verve and suavity – could scarcely have been bettered. As Rodelinda, soprano Alice Privett gave a complete performance that showed why the opera deserves to be named for her character even if others hog the limelight; she turned from forlorn to venom-spitting (and back again, several times over) on a sixpence, also skilfully manipulating her vocal heft to match.

Mezzo-soprano Ida Ränzlöv (Eduige), bass Nick Morris (Garibaldo), and countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell (Unulfo) all played their characterful part in the intricacies and intrigues of the plot, but the stand-out performance came from tenor William Wallace as Grimoaldo; as the winner of the 2016 Handel Singing Competition his pedigree was not in doubt, but the nonchalant ease with which he handled the vocal demands – ranging from pyrotechnic to plaintive to possessed – of the role, while also giving a full-blooded dramatic performance, was nothing short of breath-taking.

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