LABELS: Chandos
PERFORMER: Rosemary Joshua, Hilary Summers, Brindley Sherratt, Stephen Wallace, Richard Croft, Gail Pearson; Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn


Presented as a dramatic oratorio by Handel, Semele derives its text from Congreve’s libretto for a comic opera, and has done well on the stage in modern times. Certainly the score marks it out as a theatrical animal. So do aspects of this performance, notably Christian Curnyn’s lively and precise conducting. Handel’s rhythms – many of them inspired by dance genres – fairly skip along.

Much of the singing also embodies the necessary dramatic quality. In the title role, soprano Rosemary Joshua applies light and graceful tone and conveys Semele’s wilful, pleasure-seeking nature. As her immortal lover Jupiter, tenor Richard Croft is equally lucid and nimble. He is one of three artists to double up roles, as did Handel’s original 1744 cast, taking on in his case Apollo. Brindley Sherratt brings a rich and sonorous tone and keen textual attention to Cadmus as well as dozy Somnus, demonstrating exemplary abilities as a Handelian bass. Contralto Hilary Summers is more mixed as Ino and as Juno, rather blustery in her vengeful anger, elsewhere too placid. Countertenor Stephen Wallace’s Athamus is pleasant in tone though weak in his lower register, and again makes the character a slender dramatic presence.

Such faults are exacerbated by an acoustic that is kind to the orchestra but whose ample resonance robs the voices of clarity, especially where words are concerned. This is the first Semele, nevertheless, recorded complete with period instruments. But it’s not enough to match John Nelson’s vividly theatrical version on modern instruments.


George Hall