- Semele, oratorio, HWV 58
George Frideric Handel: Semeleby Johannes Somary
The genre of "Semele" has always been somewhat ambiguous. Handel used an opera libretto by William Congreve for his text, but at its premiere he presented it as an oratorio. Its secular, dramatic story is certainly operatic, but its music includes stylistic elements of both Handel's English sacred oratorios and his Italian operas, so it's understandable why the original audiences didn't easily embrace the work, since it failed to fully satisfy the preferences of devotees of either genre. Audiences today aren't likely to be troubled by that issue, but more problematic are Congreve's distractingly mannered text and the morally queasy plot. (Semele, an emotionally complex but appealing mortal character, is the lover of Jupiter. Juno, Jupiter's jealous wife, conspires to have Semele painfully incinerated, after which she is immediately forgotten, and the opera ends in a scene of rejoicing at her sister Ino's wedding.) Handel has created much attractive, varied, and expressive music for the score, which includes one of his loveliest and best-known solos, "Where 'er you walk." The opera receives a fine performance in this 1977 recording, with Johannes Somary leading the English Chamber Orchestra and Amor Artis Chorale, and a cast made up largely of British stars of the era. In Somary's reading, the work sounds more like an oratorio because of his measured, sometimes deliberate pacing, and because the gaps between the numbers break up any sense of dramatic flow. As Semele, Sheila Armstrong doesn't have a large voice, but it's clear and pure with an agile tessitura, and her delicacy makes her portrayal all the more poignant. Contralto Helen Watts, singing both Ino and Juno, effectively differentiates the characters and is especially powerful as the vindictive Juno. American bass Justino Diaz is a strong presence, warmly resonant as Cadmus and Somnus. Robert Tear brings some English-oratorio-tenor mannerisms to the role of Jupiter, but he has moments of real eloquence. The sound is present and nicely ambient.
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- Musical Concepts
Performance CreditsJohannes Somary Primary Artist
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