Revew: John Eccles Semele, Cambridge Handel Opera Company, Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Early Music.
Aside from specialist music circles the name John Eccles is not exactly on everyone’s lips these days, but in the early eighteenth century Eccles was widely known as a composer associated with important figures of the time, the poet and dramatist, John Dryden, the Restoration playwright, William Congreve, and the composer Henry Purcell to name but a few. He became Master of the King’s music in 1700 and wrote an opera, Semele, for the establishment of a new opera house in London.
Semele is better known as one of Handel’s oratorios which appeared later in the century, but for a variety of circumstances Eccles’s composition was lost to sight, receiving its first performance in 1972, well over 250 years after its completion.
Trinity College Chapel played host to an impressive combination of forces on Tuesday evening (Cambridge Early Music, Cambridge Handel Opera Company, and The Academy of Ancient Music), which gave Semele one of its still rare performances, and almost certainly its Cambridge premiere. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Raymond Leppard, former Director of Music at Trinity and founder of The English Chamber Orchestra.
So this was something of an event and, as it turned out, an event outstanding in every conceivable way.
First of all, Eccles’s Semele is a work of great beauty and intelligence so that one found oneself constantly asking (rather as with Handel’s Brockes Passion) how it had managed to fall through the net for so long.
Julian Perkins, Artistic Director of CHOC, conducted the orchestra from the harpsichord, and the orchestra was joined by a uniformly excellent cast of singers who presented the opera, a work at once tragic, comic and satirical with each of these elements in performance emerging in exactly the right proportions.
Myths were the vehicles by which men originally represented archetypal situations, and stories describing relationships between mankind and its gods seem to have been ways of acknowledging the twofold nature of man.
Semele loves Jupiter, a god. Jupiter establishes her in a palace for love-making; another example would be the palace the god Cupid makes for his mortal love, Psyche.
An undertone of sexuality pervades Congreve’s libretto (the same one used by Handel), accentuated by Héloïse Bernard’s (Iris) emphasis on ‘erected’ (‘Behold a new-erected Palace rise’) and Cupid’s description of the post-coital Semele.
Here it’s worth adding that Mezzo-Soprano, Bethany Horak-Hallett’s (Cupid) delivery of her only four lines in the opera revealed such a beautiful voice as to be typical of how the briefest as well as the lengthiest casting roles were all of a piece in the consistency of the production’s excellence.
The voice of Mezzo-Soprano Helen Charlston (Juno) hit astonishing heights in passages such as ‘Somnus, arise’ and ‘above measure is the pleasure’, while Soprano Anna Dennis leant appropriate drama to the role of Semele, especially in the petulance of her sequence demanding immortality from Jupiter.
Semele (‘Aiming at immortality with dangerous ambition’) reveals all the faults and foibles which would have rung alarm bells in the early eighteenth century. Pope argued that Man should be content with his station. (’Why has not Man a microscopic eye? For this plain reason, Man is not a fly’). Pride, hubris, was the cardinal sin, and Semele is lured into committing it by the vengeful Juno (Myself I shall adore, / If I persist in gazing; / No object sure before / Was ever half so pleasing’).
Art was required to be moral (‘Hence satire rose, that just the medium hit, / And heals with morals what it hurts with wit’) so the joyful proclamation by Apollo of the age of Bacchus (child of Jupiter and the now defunct Semele) is to be taken with a pinch of salt perhaps ( ‘. . when Bacchus is born, Love’s Reign’s at an end’). As is known, wine enhancing desire, takes away the performance.
The outstanding range of superb voices and an orchestra of flawless period authenticity made it a privilege for the audience to be present at this masterful production. This is the one which will no doubt ensure that John Eccles’s Semele goes on to enjoy a reputation it so much deserves.
More by this authorJohn Gilroy