For all intents and purposes, Handel's 1744 Semele is an opera. Commissioned to be performed during Lent, despite its obvious dramatic, comic, and certainly non-Christian plot and message, it had to be "dressed down" and presented as an oratorio, since dramas were verboten during the season. The disapproving audience received Semele as inappropriately bawdy and after a handful of performances, it lay dormant for 200 years. When it was re-introduced, this undeniably great, tuneful, complex work, which among other things, examines the psyche of two women in love, gained popularity and is now one of Handel’s most-performed works.

Brenda Rae and Benjamin Hulett © Steve J. Sherman
Brenda Rae and Benjamin Hulett
© Steve J. Sherman

Beautiful Princess Semele has been promised by her father Cadmus to Athamas, but she thinks of no one except the god Jupiter. Her sister Ino pines after Athamas. After much sadness and distress, Semele gets her wish – she is snatched away by an eagle and taken to Jupiter’s great condo in the heavens where she begins an affair with the god in his human form. Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno is furious, and she plots with her handmaid, Iris to destroy Semele, who wants more – she wants Jupiter to ravage her in his god-like form so she can attain immortality. Vain and wildly egocentric, Semele nags and seduces Jupiter into agreeing, and despite warnings to her, when he eventually does so amid thunderbolts, she is burnt to a crisp. The moral about aiming too high (librettist William Congreve meant to lampoon the influence that mistresses had over royalty) is clear. In 2006, at the New York City Opera, director Stephen Lawless turned this tale of upward mobility gone wrong into a 1960s parallel. Semele was presented as Marilyn Monroe with JFK and Jackie Kennedy as the ruling couple. It was witty, wicked and effective.

The performance of the work at Carnegie Hall led by Harry Bicket was in concert but it certainly did not lack drama. Characters interacted with one another and the occasional prop was used. Neither The English Consort nor the splendid cast of opera singers was going to allow any dry, matter-of-fact delivery. Choruses were delivered with clarity and purpose by the glorious Clarion Choir (under Steven Fox’s excellent direction and training), while arias, loving, sensual, playful, and invariably florid, were superbly handled by the soloists.

Harry Bicket conducts The English Concert © Steve J. Sherman
Harry Bicket conducts The English Concert
© Steve J. Sherman

Vainglorious, infuriating and alluring, Brenda Rae's Semele hit the spot. Unhappy about her impending marriage in Act 1, Semele is all gloom and pouting. In her second aria she sings that the sound of the morning lark merely adds to her distress; the aria contains a series of dozens of lark-like trills, and Ms Rae sang them each perfectly, but with a darkened color. When finally ensconced in Jupiter’s realm, the trills and runs and staccati in “Endless pleasure, endless love” were of a brighter hue. Throughout, her remarkably accurate fioriture and embellishments amazed while remaining at the service of the situation, and in the ravishing “O sleep why does thou leave me", with Joseph Crouch’s stunning cello backing, we heard some of the most gorgeous, sustained, long-breathed pianissimo singing presented this year. “Myself I shall adore”, a paean to her own beauty, was delivered with the most startling combination of wonder and arrogance as she toyed with a jewel-encrusted mirror.

And yet one left feeling that Juno was actually the work's plum role: Elizabeth DeShong, who marveled as Arsace in last season’s Met Semiramide, exhibited a huge, booming, perfectly focused sound and wicked virtuosity. Her gifts, if not quite the timbre of her voice, were reminiscent of Marilyn Horne, and her rendition of “Iris, hence away” almost brought the house down. She also sang the role of Ino, who has one of Handel’s loveliest arias. Christopher Lowrey, in the thankless role of Athamas, nonetheless presented with an evenly produced countertenor and a wise way with the text.

Ailish Tynan and Elizabeth DeShong © Steve J. Sherman
Ailish Tynan and Elizabeth DeShong
© Steve J. Sherman

Handel’s choice of a tenor Jupiter – and one with a not-very-high tessitura at that – definitely grounds the god, and Benjamin Hulett did the correct amount of strutting, Frank Sinatra style (jacket hooked over his shoulder), and offered a good sized voice, with easy coloratura. Bass Soloman Howard did double duty as Cadmus (a bit woolly) and later, the god of sleep, Somnus (superbly). Soprano Ailish Tynan made the most of Iris’ funny behavior and sang with certainty.

Mr Bicket kept The English Concert and Clarion Choir closely around him, allowing him the tight ensemble work he craved. The audience went wild with approval often, and granted a huge ovation at the end.

*****