~ HWV 58 ~

ABC Classics 980 047-0
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.

Semele: Anna Ryberg (soprano)
Ino / Juno: Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano)
Jupiter: Angus Wood (tenor)
Cadmus / Somnus: Stephen Bennett (bass)
Athamas: Tobias Cole (countertenor)
Iris: Belinda Montgomery (soprano)
A Deity [Cupid]: Shelli Gilhome (soprano)
Apollo: Paul McMahon (tenor)
Priest: Craig Everingham (bass)

Sirius Ensemble (on period instruments)
Antony Walker, conductor



Semele was originally performed as an oratorio, but its innately dramatic story means it is often staged in operatic form.  This recording derives from just such a performance, and as with most such live recordings, this has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand, it arises from a reasonably coherent dramatic conception of the work which transmits itself to the recording, while on the other there is a certain amount of stage noise, aurally inexplicable audience laughter and applause. 

Musically, this is generally a fine recording, featuring the baroque specialists Sirius Ensemble whose members Anna Macdonald (violin) and Erin Helyard (keyboard) approach baroque music from a scholarly as well as a performance point of view, as can be seen in Helyard’s heavily annotated liner notes.  The choral group Cantillation, while not specialising in early music, has been garnering much praise for performances and recordings across a range of musical styles, as has their director, and the conductor here, Antony Walker.   

Some cuts have been made, consisting of three arias, one chorus and a few lines of recitative.  The missing arias are Semele’s “The morning lark” (considered by Winton Dean to be “hopelessly out of place”), and two for Athamas, “Hymen haste” (which Dean described as “tedious on any reckoning”), and “Despair no more”. The chorus “Hail Cadmus hail” could be argued to be redundant on dramatic grounds, as it doesn’t tell us anything new, and omitting it lets us get straight from Cadmus’s impressive observation of Semele’s capture by the divine eagle to her reassuring (?) assertion of a happy outcome (“Endless pleasure”). 

The orchestral playing is smart and sensitive where it needs to be;  the overture is at first perhaps a little too stately, but soon livens up.  The second act symphony is very sprightly, and while the tempi tend overall to be brisk, they are never rushed.  The choral singing is generally exemplary, in terms of cohesion, dynamics and diction, and in conveying the appropriate drama.  They can be nicely hushed, as in delivering the line “O’erwhelme’d with sudden night the day expires” (in “Avert these omens”), amazed and terrified (“Oh, terror and astonishment!”) and joyously happy, as in the last chorus. 

Unfortunately the weak link is the title role.  Anna Ryberg has just the wrong kind of voice for Semele, with a most obtrusive vibrato, and also evincing pitch problems in several places.  In the dual roles of Ino and Juno however Sally-Anne Russell shines, vocally and dramatically.  Her mezzo voice is firm and even, always accurate and flexible in the coloratura, and she delivers some very nice cadenzas.  She also differentiates the two parts, Ino as the mousy, put upon sister and Juno as the vengeful bitch goddess being both convincingly etched.  Angus Wood was singing as a baritone until this part came his way, marking his transition to tenor.  One of the younger stars of the Australian operatic scene, he is well on his way to his new fach, but his voice here is still distinctly baritonal.  He conveys the lounge lizard aspect of Jupiter well in the second act however, and also the more thoughtful musings of the god defeated by his wife in Act III.  Countertenor Tobias Cole has a pleasant voice which never sounds too covered, although his pitch wavers a little here and there.  Stephen Bennett is a veteran performer, and his resonant bass is well deployed in his dual role.  Iris’s aria is well handled by Belinda Montgomery’s pure sweet and accurate soprano. 

While the earlier recordings of Nelson and Gardiner both have their drawbacks, they at least both have an excellent Semele at their centre, in Kathleen Battle and Norma Burrowes, respectively.  While this new recording is welcome on many fronts, it does lack that important central performance which would lift it to the ranks of these earlier versions, more is the pity. 

© Sandra Bowdler - July 2004

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