Mortal Beauty: Semele at the Barbican Hall

Händel – Semele

Semele – Brenda Rae
Juno/Ino – Elizabeth DeShong
Cadmus/Somnus – Soloman Howard
Jupiter – Benjamin Hulett
Athamas – Christopher Lowrey
Iris – Ailish Tynan
Apollo – Brian Giebler
Priest – Joseph Beutel

Clarion Choir, The English Concert / Harry Bicket.
Concert performance.

Barbican Centre, London, England.  Friday, April 5th, 2019.

The English Concert and their Artistic Director, Harry Bicket, are no strangers to Händel’s music and tonight’s concert performance of Semele is part of a tour, with stops including performances in Paris, France and New York City.  They assembled an Anglo-Irish-US cast, joined by New York’s Clarion Choir, in an uncredited mise en espace.

Brenda Rae. Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann

In many respects this was more than a concert performance.  The use of props, Iris showing up with a map to find Semele or Semele herself using a mirror in ’Myself, I shall adore’, made the evening fizzle along quite engagingly.  Rather than having the singers stand in rows behind music stands, entrances and exits were managed in order to create an added sense of drama.  Indeed, this sense of drama not only worked very well but also felt completely appropriate.

Benjamin Hulett. Photo: © Clive Barda

And yet, I actually left the hall with a sense of an evening that only partially filled its promise.  Part of this was due to Harry Bicket’s leisurely amble through the score.  This was conducting that felt prosaic, skating on the surface of the music and never really delving below.  Tempi felt congenial and relaxed, it was all very pretty, but what felt missing was a deeper penetration of the detail of the score.  I longed for a sforzando to mean something, or for the delicate instrumental palette to inject the music with drama rather than serve as a pleasant accompaniment.  The recitatives, instead of crackling with dramatic tension, initially felt earthbound.  This was exacerbated in the first part by the fact that it felt all rather score-bound, the singers making use of the music stands much more frequently than they did later on.

Elizabeth DeShong. Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann

It was really with the entry of Ailish Tynan’s terrific Iris that the evening moved into a higher gear.  Tynan injected her music with irresistible wit, using the text with fabulous, and in places deliciously bawdy, glee.  Her soprano sounds in wonderful shape, bright and crystalline.  Benjamin Hulett’s Jupiter also helped to raise the dramatic tension, injecting his music with a welcome warmth and generosity.  His ‘where e’er you walk’ was a seriously classy piece of singing – impeccably phrased and nicely ornamented.  He also executed the more rapid-fire passagework with impressive ease.

Soloman Howard. Photo: © Jon Adjahoe.

The Barbican acoustic is notoriously problematic and I’m afraid to say that, from my seat at least at the front of the circle (the first balcony), Brenda Rae’s Semele fell victim to it.  The voice sounded shallow, lacking in overtones, and in the tricky runs of ‘no, no! I’ll take no less’ were obscured by the sound of the modest orchestral forces.  Rae did however rise to ‘Myself, I shall adore’, delivering this celebrated number with wit and some stratospheric embellishments to the line, to the delight of the audience who rewarded her with a generous ovation, although I’m not quite convinced she’s the owner of a genuine trill.  Elizabeth DeShong as Juno and Ino brought her warm, resonant mezzo to her roles.  The voice is wonderfully even from top to bottom and everything was very well schooled and technically impeccable.  She even negotiated ‘Iris, hence away’ with ease.  That said, I was left with a similar equivocal impression to that of the conducting – it was all very technically proficient, and indeed most impressive, but felt skin deep.

Christopher Lowrey. Photo: © IMG Artists

In the remainder of the cast, Christopher Lowrey’s silky countertenor was efficiently deployed and Soloman Howard displayed a most impressive instrument in his roles.  His bass is wonderfully warm and this is an instrument that will surely fill out nicely over the next few years.  Right now, he can still manage to turn the Händelian corners most impressively and there is a serious amount of promise there.

Ailish Tynan. Photo: © Steven Swales Artist Management

The chorus sang with impressively clean blend and tight ensemble although again that cleanness of line led to a perception of a lack of personality in their singing, despite the undoubted technical impressiveness of what they achieved.  They also dispatched their music in extremely crisp English.  The playing of the English Concert was similarly most impressive, tuning was true and some scrappiness in the strings towards the end was forgivable given the length of the evening.

The English Concert and Harry Bicket. Photo: © Richard Haughton

This was something of a mixed evening.  There was much beauty, certainly, but I also longed for a sense of drama to dig deeper beneath the surface, to bring out the delicious imagination of Händel’s writing.  That said, Hulett and Tynan most certainly injected the evening with spirit, and Rae rose to the occasion with her ‘Myself, I shall adore’.  We were also introduced to a bass of serious promise.  The audience greeted the cast at the end with a very warm welcome.

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Barbican Hall. Photo: © Barbican Centre


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