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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WHATE'ER YOU TALK, 9 Mar 2007
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This review is from: Handel: Semele (Audio CD)
Semele is a comic opera in my own view, much as Don Giovanni is a 'dramma giocoso'. The character that each drama is named after comes to a sticky end through supernatural agencies, but neither seems to me to be any overtly moral tale. Handel chose to call Semele a 'secular oratorio' for pressing practical reasons. His beloved Italian opera was out of fashion in England, and oratorio in English was the in-thing. Semele is in English, and Handel performed it without stage-trappings, but the whole feel of the work is nothing like his genuine 'sacred grand oratorios'. He had not lost his own taste for opera but his fickle public had, and the terminology had to suit the need of the hour.

There is a lot more to Semele than the famous 'Where'er You Walk'. Even in its immediate context that aria is just the first of a string of particularly beautiful solos and duets. More generally, Semele is a mythological drama based on Ovid, the ultimate literary smartypants of the ancient world. Congreve had taken Ovid's story and given it in his own flat and de-smartified English before Handel even reached London, but as a ready-made libretto it was excellent, and Handel restores some of the humour with his inspired settings of drowsy music for Somnus the god of sleep and very witty effects when the deluded Semele, transfixed with her own beauty, gazes at herself in the mirror.

Gardiner's account is one that I can recommend without reservation, but I would advise readers of this notice to look also at the reviews of a rival DG version which some commentators find preferable in certain respects. I must admit that Gardiner's version does not get off to the best possible start with some very there-or-thereabouts intonation from the uncredited bass who gives the opening recitative of the priest. Unless I'm mistaken this is actually Robert Lloyd who is otherwise excellent as Cadmus, and who has a beautiful voice once the orchestra is there to support his pitch. In fact I would call all the singing excellent after this slightly shaky start. In particular you will hear some sizzling vocal virtuosity in the coloratura sequences from both Semele herself and Jupiter, David Thomas is absolutely superb as the drowsy Somnus, and the small chorus is admirably clear and sprightly. (One way in which this work differs sharply from Handel's oratorios is precisely his treatment of the chorus. You will hear the genuine tone of Handelian awe near the end in the chorus 'Oh Terror', but you will hear it there and there only. Elsewhere the choral effect is much lighter and less portentous than in the oratorios, and even the choral 'happy ending' is an entirely different proposition from its counterpart in Jephtha.) Among the cast I am pleased to report that the tried and trusted are here in the form of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Della Jones, Norma Burrowes and Catherine Denley and that none of them let us down. The other names may be new to me, but I'm very happy with them all, and in particular the counter-tenor role of Athamas - always something I await with some trepidation - is admirably dealt with by Timothy Penrose. The orchestral players are the ever-eminent English Baroque Soloists, and I was especially gratified by the sensitivity and care for beauty of sound that goes into the continuo playing. Beecham's caustic description of the harpsichord as 'a bird-cage played with toasting-forks', so sadly applicable elsewhere, finds no echo here I am delighted to say, and the recording strikes me as excellent.

The liner-note calls for some comment. Congreve's full text is given, with French and German translations, but the long and very Gallic essay by Jean-Louis Martinoty, again with English and German versions, is something very exceptional. I'm sure it would have got him high marks at the Sorbonne for the scope of its (at least apparent) erudition, and I myself read it with great interest (the translation is excellent) and with some benefit, but with more interest than benefit. To cut his long story short, you can safely go directly from Ovid to Congreve without detouring down every literary byway in between. I should also take with a pinch of salt some of his more recherché extractions of deep meaning, allegory and symbolism. The ancient Greek myths were explored by the Attic tragedians as they pondered the fate of humankind and sought to illuminate the supra-human forces that act on us in ways we may misunderstand to our cost. Ovid's perky genius lightened the whole effect, reducing the heavy messages to the level of fairy-tales. Whether Congreve has added any contemporary references in disguise I don't know, but if he has they would refer to events before Handel came to England, and double meanings of this kind seem to me not to be Handel's style in the least. He knew a story that would gain from the dimension of his music when he saw one, and the extra significance that provides is enough for me. I have not tried to verify Martinoty's scholarship in any detail, but when he cites uncritically an ancient 'derivation' of the name Apollo I can tell him that the ancients were uniformly at sea with this issue, that the derivation he cites is impossible (as well as misprinted) and that the science of comparative philology did not get going until Bentley in the 18th century.

Nothing is said in the liner about the performing version, and it is nothing to worry about in any case. Handel altered his scores from one performance to the next, there is hardly such a thing as an 'official' Handel score, Gardiner knows the details better than I do, the score here is a model of coherency and I make no further enquiry. This may not be the only fine version available, but in general it must be a hard one to surpass in most ways.
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