Arts & Events

American Bach Soloists Perform Handel’s SEMELE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday August 18, 2018 - 04:14:00 PM

Ever since its premiere at Covent Garden in 1744, Handel’s Semele has mystified audiences, who can’t decide whether it is fish or fowl, opera or oratorio. As the 20th century musicologist Winton Dean noted, “the public [in 1744] found [Semele’s] tone too close to that of the discredited Italian opera and set it down as an oratorio manqué”…. Like the ‘discredited’ Italian opera seria, Handel’s Semele adheres to the da capo format whose ABA structure of arias many English audience members were beginning to tire of due to the format’s tedious repetition. (I have often said that when one hears a Handel opera, even for the first time, one hears it in fact three times, due to the repetitions of the ABA da capo format.)  

In the current American Bach Soloists concert performances of Handel’s Semele, Thursday, August 9, and Friday, August 10, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, not only is the da capo format tediously repetitious, so too is the largely unvarying instrumental texture of Handel’s score, here rendered by an overwhelmingly string orchestra. (I’m not sure I ever heard a woodwind, and certainly not a brass instrument, in the entire Friday evening performance I attended.)  

Still, this is Handel; so there are saving graces. First and foremost, in this presentation, was the singing of mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen as Juno, the beleaguered wife of the much wandering Jupiter. Troubled by her wavering husband’s latest infatuation with the mortal Semele, Juno uses both her own wiles and those of allied minor gods to spoil Semele’s happiness in her newfound role as Jupiter’s mistress. Deploying both flattery and deceit, Juno, admirably sung by Sylvie Jensen, simply stole the show from Semele. In the role of Semele, soprano Arwen Myers was sweet-voiced, though not particularly powerful. Moreover, some of Ms. Myers’ high notes came out as squeaks, though whether this was an intentional gesture of interpretation or technical lapse wasn’t clear to me. In principle, I take it to be the latter. But Arwen Myers was a good, quite expressive actress; and it’s possible she let her voice go occasionally shrill in order to portray Semele’s nervousness and insecurity about just where she stood with her immortal lover. Indeed, the whole plot hinges on this question. 

I found Handel’s Semele quite stodgy in the way it opens. After a brief Overture, admirably conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, the plot gets under way with a father, Cadmus, imploring his daughter, Semele, to acquiesce to the marriage proposal of Athamas. Cadmus, sung here by bass Constantine Novotny, seems a bit domineering and insensitive, though at this point he (and we) are unaware that his daughter Semele has just become the latest mortal female to be seduced by the god Jupiter. In the role of Athamas, counter-tenor Sam Spiegel sang beautifully, but, alas, his voice lacked power and he didn’t succeed in projecting the words of his arias and recitatives. In the absence of supertitles, Sam Spiegel’s words as Athamas went unheard and unknown. Slightly better, however, was the vocal projection of mezzo-soprano Milena Gligic as Ino, Semele’s sister. From Ino we learn that she secretly carries a torch for Athamas. In the end, Ino will win out, though the end is far in the distance at this point. Ino’s Act I aria, “Turn, hopeless lover,” was accompanied by William Skeen on violoncello and Corey Jamason on harpsichord. Amid much hamming and hawing, Act I at least closed with a bubbly, exuberant aria, “Endless pleasure, endless love,” sung by Arwen Myers as Semele. 

In a minor role, soprano Emily Yocum Black was excellent as Iris, an ally of Juno’s. Soprano Madeleiene Matej sang a coyly insinuating aria as Cupid. Jupiter was ably sung on August 10 by tenor Patrick Kilbride, this role having been sung the previous night by Chase Henry Hopkins. Bass Graham Bier gave a wonderfully drowsy performance as Somnus, the personification of sleep, and for this role Handel wrote an appropriately yawning instrumental introduction. The real highlight of this concert, however, came with Sylvie Jensen singing Juno’s haughty aria, “Hence, Iris, hence away,” in which she orders Iris to leave and reveals her plot to spoil Semele’s happiness. Disguised as Semele’s sister, Ino, Juno gives Semele a hand mirror and flatteringly invites her to gaze upon her beauty. Semele rises to the bait and exults triumphantly, and with great vanity, over the beauty she sees in the mirror. Still disguised as Ino, Juno urges Semele to demand of Jupiter that the god show himself not in his customary mortal disguise but in all his godly splendor. Semele does so, and much to her dismay, is incinerated by the lightning and thunderbolts that accompany Jupiter’s appearance. However, the god Apollo, here sung by tenor Nate Widelitz, appears and announces that from Semele’s ashes her unborn son by Jupiter has been saved, and this son, none other than Bacchus, shall bring joy to all mankind. Ino also announces that in a prophetic dream, Jupiter declared that she should wed Athamas; and impressed by her devotion, Athamas agrees to wed Ino. A final chorus of priests declares, “Happy, happy shall we be,” as Handel’s Semele comes to an end.