First I must disagree with the review offering only two stars. In these matters it becomes something of a matter of personal taste. Reviews have been split on this recording, but a the bulk of major and respectable journals (i.e,., Gramophone, The Guardian, The Times (London), Music and Vision) and a number of others have praised this recording, some bestowing awards upon it - while several other journals of equal repute, have found some flaws. Again, it's a matter of personal taste.
I was surprised to happen upon this fairly recent recording of Semele which I'd
been unaware of entirely up until a few weeks ago. I've been listening to it a
great deal this past week and couldn't be more pleased with this set, and for a
number of good reasons. In addition to being virtually note complete, it is also
the first complete original instrument recording to make it into the market. Oh,
and it's also beautifully performed.
If a little less ripe of voice than I prefer, Rosemary Joshua nonetheless offers a
ravishingly sung, and completely inhabited take on the role, handling all of the
difficulties head on, with pristine coloratura and gleaming tone. Semele's first
great aria, "The morning lark . . . " is sung about as perfectly as one could
want. Some of the reviews have stated Joshua has sacrificed drama for
musical clarity but I wouldn't agree with that at all. To see what I mean,
listen to "O sleep why dost thou leave me," to hear a nearly perfect example
of fusion between emotion, musical intelligence and ability.
Richard Croft has been my favorite Jupiter (and favorite singers) for the better
part of two decades and how thrilling it is to finally have him commit the role
to disc. Croft manages to combine sensuality, musical accuracy, and that
wonderful so-necessary Handelian element "the God as Human" (or is it the
other way around?) that seems to elude many singers in this part. In his first
aria Handel has given the tenor a difficult, rather odd rhythm between singer
and accompaniment, and Croft gets it just right,. The fiendishly (almost
ridiculously) difficult "I must with speed amuse her" is sung with Croft's usual
virtuosity and tossed off with vocal athleticism, alacrity, abandon and
accuracy, his facility for rapid coloratura never ceasing to thrill me.
"Where `er you walk" is on different footing, finding Croft softening even
further his tone, while retaining plenty of gleam. He never oversells the
emotion and resists any urge to move this into "schmaltz" or deliver it in an
overly churchy manner. It is one of Handel's greatest love songs and comes
across best when sung as one. Croft's delivery here is exquisite his
ornamentation in the da capo, a lesson in elegance. (Note: At a performance
of Semele in the mid 1990's, Mr. Croft as Jupiter moved through a set that
morphed into a stage sized, renaissance artist's living vision of a glade while
singing with such tenderness the house swooned. Upon the air's conclusion
the house (a typically noisy one) was rapt in silence before a thunderous
applause was unleashed. My friend attending with me (hearing Croft for the
first time) whispered "That was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard." I
Hilary Summers does double duty here as Ino and Juno and while initially I
found her a mite hooty (in the old-fashioned countertenor sort of way) she
warms up nicely and the duality of the characters is brilliantly brought to life.
Also doubling up is Brindley Sherratt who sings Somnus and Cadmus - who
sounds like he's having a ball doing both
Stephen Wallace and Gail Pearson round out the cast in impressive turns.
The chorus is a delight - vivid and lively in some of the briefest choruses ever
penned, and always contributing to the forward pacing of the tale at hand.
Christian Curnyn leads the Grange Park Early Opera Orchestra (original
instruments) and chorus in this first complete release of an original instrument
performance. It is a lovely, reading with Curnyn lavishing attention on every
musical detail, infusing each bar with vigor and dramatic purpose. The many
tender moments come across as delicately as gauze yet he achieves also a
thrilling, theatrical and musically visceral quality in the works' more dramatic
(and sometimes violent) moments. What is best about this set is how it
presents the work complete (minus a few items excised by Handel himself) and
has all the feel of a living, breathing drama taking place in your living room (or
car if you prefer). For several of us, at least I believe this set will offer endless
pleasure . . . (sorry!)