We all know Semele, right? The one with “Where’er You Walk”? Well think again, because before there was Handel’s “bawdy opera” disguised as an oratorio, there was John Eccles’ Semele.

Semele

Composed around 1706 but never performed during Eccles’ lifetime, Semele sits at a crossroads in musical evolution. Just as the English suspicion for the “effeminate” delights of opera were waning and the compromise of semi-opera was finally giving way to through-sung works, the fragile new tradition was knocked aside by the young Handel whose Rinaldo took London by storm, making Italian opera, not English, the pinnacle of fashionable entertainment.

History is written by the victors, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that Eccles’ opera finally emerged from Handel’s shadow and made its stage debut. A recording by Florida State University Opera and Anthony Rooley eventually followed, but no professional account – until now.

The opera has become the latest labour of love from the Academy of Ancient Music, whose lavishly packaged, presented and researched new account in partnership with Julian Perkins and Cambridge Handel Opera gives this footnote of a work the passionate advocacy it has long been waiting for.

Semele shares its Congreve libretto with Handel’s later setting, and comparisons are impossible to avoid. But it’s striking that, within the same essential scaffolding, the tone of each opera is so entirely different. Sex and irony are uppermost in Handel’s playful take, but for Eccles the whole business is far more serious. His Semele might be a little credulous, but she’s sincere in her love – mortal collateral in the marital tensions of the Gods.

Richard Platt’s 2000 edition, fills in the gaps in the surviving autograph score, borrowing an overture here, a symphony there, and the effect is deliciously varied and full of colour, despite orchestration restricted just to strings and continuo.

Highlights include the clever quartet “Can I thy woes relieve?”, which brings together Semele, her father Cadmus, her would-be-husband Athamas and her sister Ino (in love with the rejected Athamas) in an almost Mozartian ensemble of conflicting and concealed desires, Iris’s lilting, lyrical “Thither Flora the Fair” – strings crowding in between verses with tissue-paper softness – and Semele’s rather unexpected aria “If cheerful hopes and chilling fears”. It’s here, in this sober musical reflection, that we get the strongest portent of the tragedy to come, of a vulnerable mortal who has strayed into the enemy’s camp.

The instrumental music is even better. There’s an almost tip-toed, plucked approach to Somnus’s cave in the strings, suddenly thrown into a flurry of semiquavers by the arrival of a raging Juno, and the short symphony that anticipates Semele’s death is touchingly muted – mourning of what is to come, rather than a musical reflection of the dazzling, destructive brilliance of the thunderbolt itself.

Perkins directs a crisp, energised account from the orchestra, with plenty of character in the continuo playing. A young cast are led by baritone Richard Burkhard as a slightly too-wholesome Jupiter and Anna Dennis’s cool, unattainably lovely Semele, set in relief by the frothier vocal prettiness of Bethany Horak-Hallett’s Cupid and Heloise Bernard’s Iris. Aoife Miskelly is luxury casting in the small role of Ino, with Rory Carver’s Second Priest also making his mark, but it’s Helen Charlston’s Juno who gets both her man and the laurels by the end – deliciously ferocious in her musical vengeance.

Composer: John Eccles
Work: Semele
Performers: Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Handel Opera/Julian Perkins
Label: AAM AAM012 (2CD)

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