Although many consider Semele an oratorio, the work is mainly seen as of operatic nature. Some might understand that the extended choral contribution might suggest otherwise, but the truth is that, for political reasons (having refused an official invitation to compose opera, Handel took profit of the excuse of vowing entirely to oratorio), the name “opera” was avoided. The work was referred to as “An English Opera, but called an Oratorio, and performed as such at Covent-Garden” in 1760 in a list of Handel vocal works. The libretto by William Congreve was prepared for operatic use and was said to be allusive of a private affair of King George II (so, basically, this is about gossip…).

Cecilia Bartoli (Semele), Liliana Nikiteanu (Ino), Birgit Remmert (Juno), Thomas Michael Allen (Athamas), Charles Workman (Jove), Anton Scharinger (Cadmus/Somnus), Chor des Opernhauses Zürich, Orchestra “La Scintilla” der Oper Zürich, William Christie

Taking profit of the gossip behind the libretto, Robert Carsen’s production (which has been around since its 1996 première in Aix-en-Provence) shows Jove and Juno as the King and Queen of England and Semele as the modern version of a royal mistress. In spite of an uneventful solution for Semele’s death, there is plenty of funny and intelligent ideas to cherish here – but the most remarkable feature is the stage direction, which highlights the cast’s acting skills, no mean accomplishment for an eleven-year-old staging. William Christie launches the performance with the fastest account of the overture in the discography and settles for a brisk and theatrical performance in which panache is sometimes more important than polish. Although tempi tend to be swifter than in the rival performances, the conductor has a fancy for the old habit of shifting the pace for section B in arie da capo and sometimes even for the repeat of section A, sometimes for unsettling effects, especially in Myself I shall adore, when both the performance’s prima donna’s and Christie’s manipulations of the score are a bit misguided. It is clear that many musical decisions were made to follow directorial choices, such as the unflowing My racking thoughts to match a hungover Semele on stage or probably the slowest version of the chorus Now Love that everlasting boy to make time for Semele’s soft lesbian scene with someone who, according to the libretto, has to be either a love or a zephyr. Probably the only mezzo recorded in the title role, Cecilia Bartoli has no problem with high tessitura, but many high-lying passages are sung in a sort of breathy mezza voce. When she has to sing out up there, I am afraid that the sound is not entirely pleasant to the ears. Naturally, she has no problem with the difficult coloratura passages, but she is often carried away by her abilities and produces some unmusical sounds in her fits of overornamentation. In what regards interpretation, her performance is highly commendable – she captures to perfection the sexy, the teasing, the ambitious yet naive aspects of her character. As much as many other singers in the cast, although there is a light accent in her English, her diction is very clear and she clearly knows her text and uses it to her advantage. She is very much at ease with the acting requirements and willingly embraces some difficult requirements, such as tearing the set apart while tackling the impossibly fast divisions of No, no, I’ll take no less. I am not completely convinced of Liliana Nikiteanu’s Handelian credentials – she has difficulties with the low register gear, smears a bit her coloratura and has her poorly pitched moments. Birgit Remmert fares better as Juno, but the writing does not seem really fit to her voice and technique. If she finally pulls out a congenial performance, this is probably due to her imagination and charisma. She is successfully partnered by the hilarious Isabel Rey as Iris, even if the overbusy direction prevents this soprano to be truly charming in her aria. As usual, the role of Athamas is significantly reduced, but Thomas Michael Allen’s peculiar countertenor calls enough attention – sometimes he sounds rather like an haute-contre. His phrasing could be more caressing, though. Charles Workman establishes an ideal chemistry with his Semele in their “lovemaking” scenes. His tenor is never really listener-friendly, but his fioriture are smoothly handled and he does not disappoint in a honeyed account of the opera’s most famous aria, Where’er you walk. Finally, Anton Scharinger’s voice lacks resonance, low notes and true flexibility for both Cadmus and Somnus. As one could have imagined, the edition is slightly cut – and Apollo’s recitative is sung by Jove himself.

Rosemary Joshua (Semele), Hilary Summers (Ino/Juno), Stephen Wallace (Athamas), Richard Croft (Jove/Apollo), Brindley Sherratt (Cadmus/Somnus), Early Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra, Christian Curnyn

Recorded in studio following live performances (with a different tenor), Christian Curnyn’s Semele is the first complete performance on period instruments available in the catalogue. The general impression suggests skilled politeness in its sprightly rhythms, adept playing and forward movement, while there is something impersonal and untheatrical about the proceedings. It is not that the conductor does not have the libretto in mind – for example, his approach to My racking thoughts does show (unlike anything else I have heard) that Semele is uneasy and restless – but many key moments are dramatically strait-jacked, such as the famous chorus Avert these omens, when the choristers sing in such uninvolved manner that one would have to guess that there is something ominous going on there at all. I still cannot make my mind if this is a valuable document: it is certainly features beautiful orchestral playing and when some real animation comes along, such as in Now love that everlasting boy, it does sound like an important performance, but if you want an extra insight, you will have to look elsewhere. The cast features only two singers close to memorable. The exquisite-toned Rosemary Joshua, whose technical command is always something to marvel, is maybe too understated and discrete as the ambitious Semele. English reviewers love to say bad things about Kathleen Battle’s performance, but she does sound like someone who would offer more than tea when Jove resigned his bolts for her arms. Also, Richard Croft comes so close to being an exemplary Jove that one is even more upset about the occasional heaviness and overcovered vowel. His clear divisions and caressing mezza voce are definitely assets hard to overlook. Hilary Summers’s androgynous mezzo-soprano does not suggest either Ino’s chaste charms or Juno’s bitchiness. In order to portray the jealous goddess, she too often plays off-pitch and parlando effects that suggest anything but formidability. Stephen Wallace offers a capable performance as Athamas, but his countertenor lacks a bit substance to be noticed in such an ungrateful role. Brindley Sherratt is reliable both as Cadmus and Somnus. The recorded sound is warm and clear.

Danielle de Niese (Semele), Louise Innes (Ino), Guillemette Laurens (Juno), Sebastien Fournier (Athamas), Paul Agnew (Jove), Jonathan May (Somnus/Cadmus), Opera Fuoco, David Stern

David Stern’s performance is the opposite of Nelson’s (see below) – it has a very small orchestra producing dance-like rhythms, avoiding melancholy in more pensive numbers and abounding in clear light phrasing. Although this is probably Semele, the intermezzo, it is still worthwhile for the beautiful choral and solo singing. Unfortunately, the edition used here is heavily cut and engages into some adaptations in recitative. Danielle de Niese is a charming Semele, singing the title role with imagination and stylishness. She is a bit economical with tone colouring and her top notes can be a bit overbright, though. As Ino, Louise Innes displays an attractive light and young-sounding mezzo. Although Guillemette Laurens’s English is rather accented, she offers a spirited performance and her basically seductive tone only highlights Juno’s schemy nature. In the role of Athamas, Sebastien Fournier has a rather unbalanced voice and has problems with low tessitura. Paul Agnew’s Jove is caressing and adept in coloratura, but it seems he was not in his best voice. Jonathan May has a rich bass, not entirely clear in its divisions, and he successfully characterizes his Somnus with a somewhat yawny tone.

Kathleen Battle (Semele), Marilyn Horne (Ino/Juno), Michael Chance (Athamas), John Aler (Jove), Samuel Ramey (Somnus/Cadmus), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra, John Nelson

John Nelson’s performance is on modern instruments, but the conductor has perfect grasp of Handelian style and convinced his distinguished cast to understand the comedy aspects in the libretto. This is particularly observed by Kathleen Battle, probably offering her best recorded performance. She is in luscious silvery voice, excels in coloratura and is convincingly provocative. Marilyn Horne, playing both the part of Ino and Juno, is also very characterful and agile in coloratura. Although she is very successful on differentiating both her characters, her voice is clearly less fresh than those of her colleagues. Michael Chance is in excellent voice and blends well in ensemble with his more powerful-voiced colleagues. Samuel Ramey also sings two parts – Cadmus and Somnus – but I think that there is not a point in this, but for the fact that he is excellent in both of them. Not only does he display spacious low notes and agility, but uses recitatives purposefully. Although John Aler’s tone is pleasing per se, it acquires a glaring sound in coloratura. The recorded sound is exemplary.

Norma Burrowes (Semele), Catherine Denley (Ino), Della Jones (Juno), Timothy Penrose (Athamas), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Jove), David Thomas (Somnus), Robert Lloyd (Cadmus), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

Although John Eliot Gardiner’s performance has a full-toned orchestral sound, his conducting is stately and undramatic, tuning down the theatricality and making Semele sound like a religious oratorio. Rhythms are clear and precise, but tempi tend to be considerate – almost every number in the score is presented markedly slower than in John Nelson’s recording. Moreover, the edition is cut – the role of Athamas almost disappears of the work, for instance. As Semele, Norma Burrowes displays a pure-toned flexible voice and crystal-clear phrasing, but is quite inexpressive. In the role of Ino, Catherine Denley sounds like the usual oratorio alto and her solos are altogether too austere. On the other hand, Della Jones has temper in plenty and vivid rendering of the text, but Gardiner’s tempi and a certain inexperience makes her Juno sound rather like an operetta villainess. As for Timothy Penrose, his child-like countertenor is not fit to opera, pleasant as it may sound. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson brings a more powerful sound than usual for his role, and his natural, flexible and bright tenor is entirely at ease in this difficult writing. Robert Lloyd is a dark forceful Cadmus but David Thomas is too gentlemanly a Somnus.

Sheila Armstrong (Semele), Helen Watts (Ino/Juno), Mark Deller (Athamas), Robert Tear (Jove), Justino Diaz (Somnus/Cadmus), Amor Artis Chorale, English Chamber Orchestra, Johannes Somary

Johannes Somary’s 1975 recording shows Semele from the grandiose point-of-view of oratorio performance in England before historically informed practices. Tempi tend to be stately, a metallic-toned harpsichord is omnipresent, strings adopt an unashamedly rich sound and ornamentation is discrete. If you dislike period instruments, you should really try John Nelson’s performance with the same orchestra first. Beautifully played as it is, the older release has become a curiosity – and the edition is severely cut. Sheila Armstrong is the richer-toned (and maybe the less sexy) Semele in the discography. Fortunately, that does not prevent her from offering immaculate coloratura. Justino Diaz’s bass is pleasant to the ears and flexible enough for the occasional fioritura in the parts of Cadmus and Somnus. Robert Tear is, on the other hand, thick-toned and ill-at-ease with Handelian writing. Truth be said, only Helen Watts survives the test of time. She is alternatively lovely as Ino and formidable as Juno, terrific both in recitative and song. A beautiful souvenir of a too rarely recorded singer.