~ HWV 58 ~

Arion - disques Pierre Vérany
2 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2004.

Semele: Danielle de Niese, soprano
Jupiter: Paul Agnew, tenor
Juno: Guillemette Laurens, mezzo-soprano
Cadmus / Somnus / Priest: Jonathan May, bass
Athamas: Sébastien Fournier, countertenor
Iris: Susan Miller, soprano
Apollo: Ernesto Tres Palacio, bass
Ino: Louise Innes, mezzo-soprano

Opera Fuoco (chorus & orchestra on period instruments)
Conductor: David Stern




A good new recording of Semele on period instruments with experienced baroque singers is much needed, but this is not it.  Not that the band is not (more or less) dedicated to the baroque, and neither do the singers lack appropriate credentials, but the overall performance is most disappointing. 

For a start, the work is severely cut:  four arias, 3 choruses and several lines of recitative are missing.  The arias are the usual (and usually unlamented) “Morning lark” of Semele and “Hymen Haste” of Athamas, also Athamas’s “Despair no more”, along with Cupid’s “Come zephyrs come”.  The latter could be argued to be dramatically inessential, and of course getting rid of it saves hiring yet another soprano.  While it could be argued that these arias are not dramatically necessary, ditching the choruses does leave rather a hole.  They are “Avert these omens”, which helpfully tells us what’s crucially going on at the altar, “How engaging, how endearing” which builds up our picture of Semele’s relationship to Jupiter, and “Now love that everlasting boy” which tells us just how Jupiter distracts her from awkward questions (and is a very fine piece in itself).  On the other hand, the totally uninformative “Hail Cadmus hail” is retained, and sung very flabbily at that.

In fact, there is no real feel for the drama evident in this recording.  The orchestral playing is generally correct, and performed at a lively pace, but it all just seems to rush by.  The chorus is a little ragged at the start, but generally maintains a united front, but little sense of excitement.

At least there is a convincing Semele in Danielle de Niese, whose bright and accurate soprano is combined with some sense of the drama of the piece. Jupiter has some very well known music to deliver, and Paul Agnew manages a respectable Where’er you walk, but he never really convinces as the rakish then repentant divinity.  Jonathan May also seems comfortable in the dual role of Cadmus and Somnus, having good diction and a resonant bass, if sounding a little flat at times.  On this recording, Ino and Juno are taken as separate roles, with Louise Innes as the former sounding rather feeble;  yes, Ino is a dull girl, but she can be amusingly so.  “But hark the heavn’ly sphere turns round” is taken at a very odd gallop, and the Semele-Ino duet which succeeds it is sung prettily but also speedily.  Sébastien Fournier as Athamas tends to waver around the pitch, and positively gurgles in the coloratura. Guillemette Laruens at least manages to sound dramatically engaged, but her accent is most distracting:  “Iris hence awee”, “a speedy floit”,  “obey my wheel” ...

As a performance of a dramatic work of theatre, whether staged or not, this recording fails to convince.  It does however contain some nice playing and singing for those not overly concerned about the story.  Australian-born De Niese in particular is a very engaging Semele.  The recent Australian version under Antony Walker, on the other hand, is an excellent reading of the work overall, but lacks a convincing performer in the title role.

© Sandra Bowdler - July 2004

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