Posts Tagged ‘The English Concert’

Is Handel’s Semele an opera or an oratorio? The question is actually irrelevant. I’ve seen it staged – and provided the director finds a way to mix in the chorus in the dramatic action, it works famously – and now I see it in concert and, provided that everybody has sense of humor, it works as well as in the opera house. 

The English Concert, the historic instrument ensemble, launched a couple of years ago a project of performing Handel operas with international soloists such as Joyce DiDonato and Christiane Karg. Although the English language libretto makes it less accessible for continental singers, the cast features a list of names from both sides of the Atlantic.

Brenda Rae has sung the title role on stage and her experience is evident by the way she takes profit of every note and word of the score. It does not hurt either that she is a terrific actress. Ms. Rae is a specialist in high-lying coloratura roles – and one can hear that in her voice. Although Semele is a role for high sopranos, we’re talking about what baroque composers considered high tessitura. The key to success in a Handelian prima donna role is a clear and expressive middle register. Ms. Rae’s, however, is the kind of voice who really blossoms from the high f on. As a result, much of what she sang lacked some color and did not project as it should. I suppose she was not in her best voice either. In any case, that did not prevent her from dispatching impossibly difficult coloratura with aplomb and producing some beautiful examples of mezza voce.

As it was, Elizabeth DeShong (Ino/Juno) almost stole the show with her fruity mezzo perfectly connected to solid low notes and exemplary control of fioriture. She too made a great deal of the text and could make the audience laugh by just rolling her eyes. Christopher Lowry’s countertenor sounds distinctively English, even if he was born in the US. He handled his divisions accurately and sang sweetly Athamas’s Your tuneful voice.

Benjamin Hulett smudged one or two runs, but sang his Jupiter with affection and a dulcet tone. In the double part of Cadmus and Somnus,  Solomon Howard’s superdark bass is a bit on the grainy side, but he tackled the florid More sweet is that name with firmness and surprising flexibility for a voice of that size. In the tiny role of Iris, Ailish Tynan sang stylishly and showed ideal comedy timing. 

Good as the cast was, the glory of this evening performance was the superlative singing of the Clarion Choir. Their homogeneity, clarity and accuracy is something to marvel. Conductor Harry Bicket led the performance with a strong sense of forward movement that came close to the egg-timer treatment. This is understandable in a long work, but one could feel that his musicians would gain if the beat was just a little bit more relaxed some times. Balance had the orchestra in disadvantage against the chorus at least in the acoustics of the Barbican.

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