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Dramatic Effect

Handel's 'Semele' at Grange Park,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Handel wrote Semele not to be performed in the theatre, but in a concert version performed during his 1744 Oratorio season. We have only the haziest knowledge of how Handel performed the piece at the Covent Garden Theatre, but it was definitely not staged. The cast included a mixture of opera and oratorio singers, with Elisabeth Duparc (La Francesina) as Semele and John Beard as Jupiter.

Handel wrote the work at a time when he was trying to expand the range and audience of his oratorio seasons. This did not find favour with his audiences, who found concert performances of Handel operas in English profoundly confusing. Hercules, premièred the next year, was similarly fated to be unpopular. Even Belshazzar, which premièred in 1745, was not really a success. Handel's oratorio audiences seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted, and his later commercial successes owe much to his giving the audience what they want.

That his contemporaries viewed Semele as an opera is pretty clear. Charles Jennens, in his notes added to Mainwaring's biography of the composer, refers to Semele as a 'bawdy opera'. Mainwaring lumped most of Handel's oratorios together under the heading Oratorio, much as we do today. But Jennens had a far more precise view of them and annotated the list with various categories.

The libretto is based on one that Congreve wrote around 1706, but Handel's adapter included a number of extra texts from poems by Pope and Congreve. The result is a fluently dramatic work. Though it has some significant choruses, they do not over-burden the work in the way that happens in pieces like Susanna.

On Sunday 1 July 2007, Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company presented what was billed as a concert performance of the work at Grange Park Opera in Hampshire UK. They are evidently engaged in recording the piece for Chandos and this concert was a happy side benefit.

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Copyright © 9 July 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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