‘A Revelation’: Academy of Ancient Music’s Semele released today2:21, 29th January 2021
The Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of John Eccles’ Semele is nothing short of a revelation.
The piece predates Handel’s much more famous Semele (1744) by several decades. John Eccles (1668-1735) became Master of the King’s Music in 1700. Semele dates from around 1706; as such it occupies the perceived operatic no-man’s land between Purcell’s death in 1695 and Handel’ s settling in England. This is the first fully professional recording of Eccles’ Semele with historical forces.
Eccles’ music, a fusion of Italian and English styles, offers a plethora of brief but inspired arias alongside duets and orchestral pieces. It is often dramatic, an aspect underlined by a rich continuo in this performance including bass violin, bass viol and theorbo/guitar. Eccles writes with an easy assurance, associating specific gestures with dramatic elements. Textures can also often be daringly thin; this is a remarkable work of great scope.
Helen Charlston is impressive as Juno: her commanding ‘Somnus, arise’ and jaunty duet with Somnus, ‘Away let us haste’ are real highlights. Anna Dennis excels as Semele. The near-static ‘O Sleep’ is remarkable for the clarity of its intervals. ‘If cheerful Hopes’, a meditation on opposite-facing emotions, is Dennis’s finest moment, itself leading to a lovely duet with Jupiter (the excellent Richard Burkhard), ‘If this be Love’.
William Wallace’s agile, high tenor is remarkable as Athamas – try ‘See, she blushingly turns her Eyes’ – while Aoife Miskelly as Ino mines a deep seam of lament in her ‘Turn hopeless Lover,” displaying a stunning purity of tone.
Bass Graeme Broadbent is a stentorian Chief Priest. At the other end of the spectrum is Christopher Foster in Cadmus’s ever-so-gentle ‘Leave me, loathsome Light’. With Bethany Horak-Hallett a deliciously light Cupid and Héloïse Bernard an emotionally powerful Iris, this is a cast without flaw.
The instrumental ensemble of the AAM with Cambridge-based forces is characterised by a wide range of emotional projection. The Overture sets the stall, with each of the instrumental numbers individually, memorably, etched. The sheer virtuosity of the Symphony that opens act III is breathtaking, especially when captured in Alexander Van Ingen and Dave Rowell’s superbly present recording. Performed to the very highest vocal, instrumental and scholarly standards, this is simply unmissable.
A longer version of this review will be published in the March/April issue of Opera Now.