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Seme(le)freddo

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 13, 2015 at 9:02 am

Review – Semele (London Handel Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 10 March 2015)

Semele – Anna Devin
Athamas – Robin Blaze
Cadmus – George Humphreys
Ino – Ewa Gubanska
Jupiter (and Apollo) – Rupert Charlesworth
Juno – Louise Innes
Iris – Maria Valdmaa

London Handel Singers
London Handel Orchestra

Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

I admit that Semele is one of Handel’s more curious works, but one rich in invention.

And this performance of Semele was an auspicious start to the London Handel Festival this year. I’ve always enjoyed this festival and realised as I sat down in the QEH, that I had missed last year’s festival completely. Fortunately, this year I am definitely seeing Giove in Argo and might just squeeze in a few other performances.

The cast overall was incredibly strong, but it did take a while for the individual performances to both settle down and warm up. However I must start with the London Handel Singers. Handel’s choruses in any of his oratorios are integral to the plot, but in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cummings managed to take it to an even higher dramatic level – excellent singing, clarity of line and excellent diction were combined with a rich palette of colours which made each and every chorus magnificent, not least the final chorus, a resounding Happy, Happy shall we be. The last time I heard choral singing of this quality was in ENO Thebans, sadly a production since overshadowed by the latest management fracas on St Martin’s Lane.

Of the soloists I must start with Louise Innes’ excellent Juno. She was alone in bringing a real sense of dramatic characterisation to the stage. Combine this with her rich and at times almost fruity mezzo and hers was a Juno not to be crossed. Both Hence, Iris hence away and Above Measure were delivered with vocal and regal authority combined with elegant ornamentation on both returning da capo sections.

I’ve seen Anna Devin a few times over the last few months, and clearly her star is in the rapid ascendant. But in truth, it took her a while to settle. Her normally bright and splendid soprano was often slightly harsh at the top of her range and her first aria, The morning lark to mine accords his note – a fiendishly difficult aria at the best of times – often slipped from her control. But as this Semele trod the path to her own fiery demise Ms Devin gripped the music more effectively. Both Endless Pleasure and Myself I shall adore – with the flighty coloratura – were delivered with more confidence and authority as was the arioso I am ever granting. However as the evening progressed I did think that perhaps less ambitious ornamentation in the returning da capos may have helped a little. Personally the highlight for me was her liquid and limpid Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me, which she sung with effortless grace and delicacy. However her performance was slightly let down by a lack of dramatic impetus. The bite that she found for I am ever granting was not then translated in her final demise. A lack – on this occasion – of a breadth of vocal colour meant that it limped slightly awkwardly to its end.

As her beau, Rupert Charlesworth was very impressive. His technique came to the fore in arias such as Lay your doubts and fears aside, where even at Cummings’ speeds, he delivered spontaneous and seemingly effortless coloratura. His vocal timbre is perfectly suited to Handel’s music – Where e’er you walk was an object lesson in both technique and interpretation as was Come to my arms, my lovely fair.

Ewa Gubanska’s Ino was slightly hampered by unclear diction but there as no questioning her complete commitment. Turn, hopeless lover, with its cello obbligato spun out so exquisitely by Katherine Sharman, was one of the highlights of the evening and demonstrated why Ms Gubanska won last year’s singing competition. Her lunchtime recital is one I am definitely going to try and make. Maria Valdmaa’s Iris was brightly and elegantly sung and clearly these two artists have promising careers ahead of them in this repertoire.

The Athamas and Camus of Robin Blaze and George Humphreys completed the septet of singers. I have long been an admirer of Blaze – is recording of duets with Carolyn Sampson is excellent and his performance as Katie Mitchell in ENO’s Jephtha many years ago will stay with me for a long time. While his voice may have lost some of its sheen and flexibility, his performance was incredibly strong and accomplished and he made much of music that – admittedly – is a little less than typically inspired for Handel. And George Humphreys wonderfully resonant bass – impressively hued but clear – ensured that his presence was felt both as Cadmus and Somnus.

The London Handel Players performed with both gusto and accuracy – responding to Cummings direction superbly, even at his fastest of tempi – and considering the simplicity of the orchestration, the players uncovered a wealth of colour and dynamic range.

Despite an uncertain start, this Semele shone a light on this not-often performed work that is full of inventiveness with soloists, chorus and orchestra delivering strong performances. And while it was sad to hear of the passing of founder Denys Darlow before the performance started, this was a fitting tribute to the man who has made the London Handel Festival such a success.

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  1. […] and the cast led by Terfel and Theorin were incredible. The London Handel Festival opened with Semele, which offered mixed performances but it was a delight to hear both the chorus, Louise Innes and […]

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