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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Opera Review: Zapped!

Handel’s shocking Semele strikes Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lightning rod: Brenda Rae as Semele at Carnegie Hall
Photo by Steve J. Sherman for Carnegie Hall.
One does not always think of Georg Friedrich Handel as a paragon of musical experimentation. On Sunday afternoon, the English Concert, (which is in the middle of presenting an annual cycle of Handel masterpieces at Carnegie Hall) struck down that thesis. This year’s entry is Semele, a hybridization of opera and oratorio. Unusual in that it uses the oratorio formula and an English text (by the poet William Congreve) to tell a mythological tale, Semele flopped in 1744. Today, this work is regarded as one of the composer’s boldest and most impressive achievements. 

This performance was led by the familiar presence of Harry Bicket at the harpsichord. helming this period orchestra and the Clarion Chorale. Semele tells the story of a planned marriage that goes awry when the bride the title character, played by Brenda Rae) is abducted by ol’ Jupe in the form of a giant eagle. Her first great aria, “- “ Is sung in the grip of a heavenly ecstasy. It is positively indecent by 18th century standards, and Congreve’s text as it is throughout this work is funny as hell. 

Ms. Rae gave a strong and florid performance throughout, rising to some stunning high notes as she navigated this stratospheric role. She did have a tendency to swallow some lines in the middle of rapid fire passages, but rose to the occasion when called on to deliver the ornamentation that singers must add to each repeat. This was a standout performance, culminating in “Myself I shall adore,” a stunning exercise in self-regard sung with mirror in hand. She was moving in her final scene when Semele knows that her request, to see the God in his true, thundering form, is going to have fatal consequences...for her.

The second standout was Elizabeth DeShong who took on the twin role of Semele’s confidante Ino and Juno, the wife of Jupiter. Juno's jealousy drives the events of the opera, as she plots against her horn dig husbands latest flame. Driven by by jealousy, she suggests that Semele cannot become immortal until she sees Jupiter in his true, which is to say, electrifying form, Ms. DeShong supplied a supple contralto to this role, diving to great depths. Paired with soprano Ailish Tynan as Iris, she drew great laughs even as she schemed and steamed.

Ms. Tynan proved to be a find,mosses sing a flexible and strong voice with a shining quality appropriate for Iris’ music. She also got the first laughs of the afternoon with an ingenious bit of prop comedy. She pulled out a map for Juno to consult and find out where Jupiter had taken Semele, and spent part of Juno's aria reading a full-color tabloid at stage right. The papers were then jammed under the tailcoat of the unflappable Mr. Bicket. Her scene with Ms. DeShong and bass Solomon Howard as Somnus, the god of sleep also drew strong laughs from the house as the two goddesses tried to rouse a deity whose primary function is to exist in an unconscious state.

Jupiter is a short role, but tenor Benjamin Hulett made a strong impression in his scenes with Semele. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey made the most of the underwritten part of Athamas, Semele's jilted fiancée. (He marries Ino in the opera's final scene.) He seemed tentative in his early scenes but the head voice blossomed and spread as the first act progressed, Brian Giebler and Joseph Beutel stepped out of the ranks of the a Clarion a Choir for the smaller roles of Apollo and the Priest, respectively and each man did a fine job.

Handles use of a versatile continuo section that includes cello, double bass, harpsichord and prestige organ spared the singers the effort if having to sing over an overbearing  orchestra. 
That said, the English Concert, and particularly its kettledrum, player , trumpeters and horn it's who all play valveless instruments in the period style) brought the thunder down when it was necessary. Mr. Bicket led a brisk and enthralling account of this very long score, dividing his time between sitting at the keyboard and conducting from a standing position. Long may this exceptional series continue.

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