Is Handel’s Semele an oratorio or an opera? Of course Handel himself called it an oratorio but some suggest it is the English-language opera that he never wrote. Taking its theme from Greek mythology, the work is unashamedly about love and earthly pleasure, and it is no wonder it was frowned upon by the genteel society of Georgian London when the oratorio was performed at the Covent Garden Theatre during Lent in 1744 (the season after the London premiere of Messiah). Nowadays it is probably the most often – and successfully – staged of Handel’s oratorios.

Anna Devin © IMG Artists
Anna Devin
© IMG Artists

However, Semele at the opening concert of this year’s London Handel Festival, performed in a straightforward oratorio style, convinced me that it was indeed an oratorio rather than an opera. Handel had injected the score with so much drama, colour and nuances that it doesn’t really need any scenery or props. Interestingly, this year’s festival had relocated from their usual oratorio venue St George’s Hanover Square to the Queen Elizabeth Hall apparently because the subject was considered too profane for a church (probably for capacity reasons too). More importantly, they fielded a hugely talented young cast (several of them previous prize-winners at the Handel Singing Competition which is run by the festival) who all vividly brought the drama alive under the inspirational leadership of Laurence Cummings from the harpsichord.

Formally and musically, Handel provides far more variety in Semele compared to his operas. It has many orchestral accompanied recitatives (as opposed to the continuo-only recitatives) as well as ensemble numbers (several duets and even a quartet) and of course the chorus play a vital part as priests, zephyrs and nymphs, warmly sung by the 20-strong London Handel Singers.

Soprano Anna Devin took the title role. Recently she had been a familiar face at the Royal Opera House as Jette Parker Young Artist, but I still remember her when she impressed me as a finalist at the Handel Singing Competition in 2007 and it is great to see her back in this repertoire again. Her coloratura may not be as light and crisp as some Semeles I have previously heard, but she sang stylishly and alluringly and brought operatic glamour to the role of the beautiful but vain Semele. The popular aria “Endless Pleasure” was delightfully sung; elsewhere I thought her strengths lay in the slower, lyrical arias such as “O sleep, why dost thou leave me” and “Thus let my thanks be paid”. She has a pleasing and well-controlled timbre in all ranges and she hit some brilliant high notes in the da capo section embellishments.

Handel wrote the leading male role of Jupiter for a tenor, which he rarely did in his Italian operas, and it is a beautifully lyrical role, stylistically closer to the arias in Messiah than in his operas. Young and fresh-voiced tenor Rupert Charlesworth (winner of the 2013 Handel Singing Competition) has the perfect voice for this role and portrayed him not so much as a powerful God but as a youthful and vulnerable lover besotted with Semele who doesn’t see Juno’s revenge coming. His aria “Where’er you walk”, one of the highlights of the work, was ravishingly sung and his emotional rendering of the recitative “Ah whither is she gone” as he realizes he has lost Semele was moving (I think he should make a good Evangelist).

The revengeful Juno was powerfully and spitefully performed by mezzo-soprano Louise Innes, especially in the scene Juno (disguised as Semele’s sister) tricks Semele to her destruction. Estonian soprano Maria Valdmaa played her sidekick Iris with comic charm. Meanwhile, the sub-plot involving Semele’s betrothed Prince Athamas (elegantly sung by the experienced countertenor Robin Blaze), her sister Ino who is secretly in love with Athamus, and her father King Cadmus was entertainingly presented too. Dark-toned mezzo Eva Gubanska provided a good contrast to Devin (they blended beautifully in the Act II duet) and her arias were sincerely sung, although she seemed a little uneasy in the recitatives. Bass George Humphreys brought clarity of text to both roles of Cadmus and Somnus (the God of Sleep), the former sung with dignity and the latter with suitable lethargy. They all displayed imaginative embellishments in the da capo repeats.

On this occasion, it was nice to see the London Handel Orchestra on the QEH stage rather than in the cramped space at St George’s Hanover Square. As always, the orchestra gave a spirited and honest performance, energetically lead by Adrian Butterfield. Laurence Cummings paced the three-hour long work (no cuts) perfectly and brought out the full range of colour and the nuances of Handel’s orchestration (with horns, trumpets and timpani) which I hadn’t really appreciated when I had seen Semele on the operatic stage. The continuo team deserves high praise (especially the beautiful cello obbligato from Katherine Sharman) and Cummings' spirited continuo playing on the harpsichord was a constant delight too.

The performance of Semele, and indeed the whole festival (which runs until 20 April) was dedicated to its founder conductor Denys Darlow, who sadly passed away in February this year.