H&H’s “Semele” closes season with a Handel feast

May 8, 2017 at 11:33 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Harry Christophers conducted the Handel and Haydn Society in Handel "Semele" Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Kat Waterman

Harry Christophers conducted the Handel and Haydn Society in Handel’s “Semele” Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Kat Waterman

It was an ironic beginning to a memorable performance. 

As the Handel and Haydn Society chorus sang the blazing “Avert these omens” in the first act of Handel’s Semele Sunday afternoon, the Symphony Hall house lights came on and the fire lights began to blink. What seemed like an apt theatrical effect proved little more than an inconvenience: the hall’s fire alarm had been pulled.

After about fifteen minutes, the all clear was given and the audience reentered the hall. Harry Christophers, who was conducting the performance, joked that the interval “was a bit premature as Jupiter doesn’t appear until Act two.”

The performance picked up where it left off, and the musicians and singers brought Handel’s score to vivid life in three hours of pure joy.

Semele is an oratorio that is rife with theatrical drama. Its story tells of a young mortal woman, Semele, who, though married to Athamas, loves the god Jupiter. The god of thunder returns her feelings and he whisks her away from the altar on the wings of an eagle. Their love affair soon runs aground as Semele wishes to be transformed into a goddess herself.

Meanwhile, Juno, Jupiter’s jealous wife, sees and opportunity and plots to take revenge by tricking Semele to implore Jupiter to show her his true, god-like form. Semele believes this act will bestow immortality upon her, but in fact it will kill her. Only when Semele is burned alive does she repent of her vanity.

The work contains some of Handel’s most inventive and beautiful music, and Christophers, leading with characteristic waving gestures, drew playing and singing of grace and energy.

Sunday’s performance featured a lineup of stellar singers. As Semele, Soprano Sarah Tynan sang with a bright, radiant voice in her many arias. Though a mournful recitative in its theatrical context, “Ah me! What refuge now is left me?” beamed with sunny, arching lines. “Endless pleasure, endless love” was aptly lilting. Tynan proved a fine vocal stylist in “Myself shall I adore,” the aria Semele sings as she gazes into a mirror. The piece’s darting vocal flourishes were handled deftly. 

Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy was the finest actress on stage Sunday afternoon, performing dual roles as Juno and Ino, Semele’s sister. Her voice is warm and possesses a touch of darkness that brought depth to the sound. That aspect of her singing made for palpable anger in her performance as Juno. “Awake, Saturnia, from thy lethargy” was a mix of fire and elegance. The aria “Above all measure,” which Juno sings after she gets her revenge, sounded with a touch of sarcasm.

As Jupiter, tenor Jeremy Budd sang with a clarion voice and lyrical grace. The most famous aria from this work, “Where’er you walk,” floated as if a cloud, with Budd and Christophers in full sync as they stretched the tempo slightly to shape the phrases. 

As Semele’s father Cadmus and the god of sleep Somnus, bass-baritone Matthew Brook brought equal parts command and humor. Cadmus’ aria “Wing’d with our fears, and pious haste” brilliantly conveyed the image of Semele being taken by the eagle. And Somnus’ aria “Leave me, loathsome light” was fittingly lethargic.

Tim Mead brought a radiant sound to the role of Athamas, his countertenor warm and buttery. Soprano Mireille Asselin was a beaming and nimble Iris. Two member of the chorus, Woodrow Bynum and Stefan Reed, excelled in their brief roles as a priest and Apollo respectively. 

The H&H chorus is perhaps the finest vocal ensemble in Boston. Numbering slightly less than thirty singers, the group was capable of producing powerful sounds when called upon. Diction was crisp and percussive, and vocal lines had direction and momentum.

H&H’s period instrument orchestra played firmly and searchingly all afternoon. The overture and sinfonias were shaped with sharp rhythms and colorful dynamic shading. Organist Ian Watson, cellist Guy Fishman, theorbist Paula Chateauneuf, and harpist Frances Kelly provided sturdy and sensitive continuo support.

Handel and Haydn Society’s 2017-2018 season will open with Masaaki Suzuki leading Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony 7:30 p.m. October 6 at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org

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