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First ever recording of forgotten opera to be released

Three Cambridge institutions – Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Handel Opera Company and Cambridge Early Music – have joined forces to release the first fully professional recording of John Eccles’ Semele on period instruments.

Although the English language opera was written in 1706, it was not even performed until the 1960s and this is the first time it has been recorded.

Composed some decades before Handel’s more famous setting of the same story, Eccles’ Semele of 1706 offers a vivid contrast with that better-known work and shows how English opera might have developed after Purcell’s death had Handel not moved to London in 1712.

Julian Perkins who directed the performance of John Eccle's Semele (43410668)
Julian Perkins who directed the performance of John Eccle's Semele (43410668)

Director Julian Perkins says: “It's a very important work which has been banished to the footnote of history for a long time because the version of Semele that everyone knows is the one by Handel, which was written about 40 year after eccles.

“If Handel had not come to England this would have been the opera that would have been the foundation stone of all subsequent operas.

“It would have been the turning point this came after Henry Purcell's operas. The wonderful thing about Eccles’ semele is it fuses italian and english styles so you get italian style English opera. It's one of those extraordinary maybes in musical history and of course it was sidelined possibly because of an italian conspiracy in english theatres at the time to keep work in the English theatre for Italian people.

“Now, Handel's Semele is a fantastic piece, but it is a shame that Eccles has been sidelined because of that being a lesser known composer. I think it was only performed for the first time in about 1964.So we saw this as an opportunity to bring this work back into the daylight again.

“I think one reason it has been overlooked is that it's more subtle than Handels work. Handel's Semele is wonderfully exuberant and theatrical whereas eccles is more intimate.”

Directed by Julian Perkins of the Cambridge Handel opera Company, the recording was made at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London in late 2019 ahead of a performance in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Julian added: “I think listeners will be surprised by the emotional impact it has. We have a cast of 13 professional singers and a wonderful variety of colours. I think they will be surprised by the delicacy of the music and the way the action moves very quickly. It is a very intense piece.

“Both Handel’s and Eccles’ Semele use the libretto by William Congreve, which scholars tend to say is one of the finest in the English language so the story has got depth being based on the Ovid myth.”

The opera tells the story of the god Jupiter falling in love with a beautiful mortal, Semele. She is treacherously advised by the goddess Juno, Jupiter's wife, to ask him to appear to her in his real form as a god. He does so because he has promised Semele he will do anything she says, but appearing in his true form causes Semele’s death by his divine thunder and lightning.

“With this recording there was a wonderful sense of coming across something which has been hardly performed and hearing it speak across the centuries and people being as moved by it now as then,” says Julian.

“Also there was the sense of justifying this music giving it the testament it deserves by recording it.”

The Academy of Ancient Music’s CEO John McMunn comments: “Revealing unjustly neglected music to new audiences is a core part of AAM’s mission, and so it gives me great pleasure to release this world-premiere recording of Eccles’ Semele along with partners CHOC, CEM and director Julian Perkins. With ravishing performances from cast and orchestra alike, no better argument could be made for further exploration of Eccles’ works or the rich context in which they were created.”

SemeleCast. Picture - Academy of Ancient Musci, Luke Koch de Gooreynd (43410756)
SemeleCast. Picture - Academy of Ancient Musci, Luke Koch de Gooreynd (43410756)

The Academy’s founder, the late Christopher Hogwood, was known to be a pioneering ‘musical detective’ and his spirit of discovery runs throughout AAM’s activity on and off the concert platform. Recent major recording projects have seen AAM publish new critical editions of Dussek’s Messe Solemnelle (October 2020) which was Recording of the Week in The Sunday Times; and Handel’s Brockes-Passion (October 2019) which was Choral & Song Choice in BBC Music Magazine, Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine, one of the Sunday Times’ Top Recordings of the Year, and became the first major Handel work ever to feature at the top of the Specialist Classical Chart.

The recording of Eccles’ Semele will be released on January 29 on AAM Records.

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