Handel: Semele

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

LABELS: Pierre Verany
WORKS: Semele
PERFORMER: Danielle de Niese, Paul Agnew, Jonathan May, Louise Innes, Guillemette Laurens, Sébastien Fournier; Opera Fuoco Chorus & Orchestra/David Stern
CATALOGUE NO: PV 704021-22
The field is open for a good, substantially complete period-instrument version of Handel’s delectable ‘bawdy opera’ (Charles Jennens’s words). Sadly, this is not it. John Eliot Gardiner’s otherwise fine 1981 recording (Erato) cuts around 40 minutes’ of worthwhile music. David Stern, on this new recording, goes even further, making internal cuts in a couple of pieces and, criminally, jettisoning the two delicious, Purcellian dance choruses of ‘Loves and Zephyrs’ in Act II. Even if you can live with these arbitrary cuts, this new performance is no match for Gardiner’s or the much more complete modern-instrument recording conducted by John Nelson (DG). Stern gets spirited, rhythmically supple playing from his tiny orchestra, though I didn’t care for the frequent use of a solo violin where Handel specifies tutti, or the added recorder parts in several numbers. The equally tiny chorus sings well enough, if without the incisiveness of the larger Anglophone choirs for Gardiner and Nelson, both of whom make more of Congreve’s elegant, witty text. Only two of the singers – Paul Agnew’s graceful, if rather reticent, Jupiter, and Louise Innes’s tender Ino – give consistent pleasure. Danielle de Niese certainly understands the character of the frivolous, over-sexed Semele; but her tone has a fluttery edge, and her phrasing is often gusty, with indulgent-sounding scoops and swoops. In the potentially show-stealing role of Juno, Guillemette Laurens sings with far less venom and charisma than Della Jones for Gardiner or Marilyn Horne for Nelson, while Sébastien Fournier, as Athamas, had me wincing with his ludicrous chesty plunges. Gardiner, with the enchanting Norma Burrowes in the title role, remains the best-conducted Semele on disc. But the extra numbers tip the scales towards the Nelson recording, less sure in its Handelian style but vividly characterised, with Kathleen Battle the most sensual Semele of all. Richard Wigmore