A delicious new production of Semele (“Handel’s sexiest opera”) makes its US premiere at the Hop on Wednesday, April 10—part of a seven-venue tour that takes the production to Paris, London and other US and UK locations, including New York’s Carnegie Hall. It’s part of a Handel-filled spring at the Hop, including the full Messiah, performed May 18 & 19 by the Handel Society of Dartmouth College, with great guest soloists.
Dubbed “Handel’s sexiest opera” by renowned early music conductor John Gardiner, Semele tells a tale of Greek gods, goddesses, lust and revenge. The story unfurls with irresistible theatricality and color in a stream of easy-flowing melodies, dazzling coloratura and risqué language (the libretto was drawn from a 1706 work based on one of the more salacious passages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Along with gorgeous passages for the chorus (portraying priests, soothsayers, nymphs and others), the score includes such show-stopping arias as the title character’s florid “Endless pleasure, endless love” and touching “O sleep, why dost thou leave me,” and Jupiter’s “Where’er you walk”—a recital favorite to this day. (Below, see Rosemary Joshua sing “Endless pleasure, endless love” in a 1997 production.)
Listen to a reading of Ovid’s Semele here:
When it premiered in 1744, however, Semele caused a scandal and received only a handful of performances—unlike Handel’s hugely successful Messiah which had premiered one year earlier. Messiah librettist Charles Jennens was among its critics, writing that it was “a baudy Opera.” Semele fell into prolonged neglect until its first stage performances, in Cambridge, England, in 1925 and in London in 1954. These fueled an enthusiasm for the work that has not since lapsed.
This production of Semele will be performed by renowned early music orchestra English Concert, led by Artistic Director Harry Bicket, with vocal soloists from the top ranks of Baroque music and the ample choral parts sung by New York’s Grammy-nominated Clarion Choir, directed by rising-star conductor Steven Fox, Dartmouth class of 2000. Since graduating 19 years ago, Fox has gone on to founding what may be Russia’s first Baroque orchestra in St. Petersburg, and becoming the Artistic director of the Clarion Choir.
Brenda Rae acclaimed for her “tireless, golden soprano” (The Times, London) plays the mortal woman Semele, who foolishly beds Jupiter in a bid for immortality. Jupiter’s wife Juno, who responds with fury at the betrayal, is played by Elizabeth DeShong, the “American mezzo- soprano [who] has it all”(National Post of Canada). The faithless Jupiter is played by Benjamin Hulett, a young British tenor with substantial operatic credits in the UK and Europe. Other soloists are Soloman Howard, Ailish Tynan and Christopher Lowrey.
Since 2013, the English Concert has doing annual performances at Carnegie Hall of Handel works, under a commission from the New York presenter. The performances have been rapturously received. Wrote the New York Classical Review, “The Concert’s Handel performances … have been among the best classical music experiences over the past several years.” Wrote Broadway World, “One can’t say enough about the splendors of The English Concert under Bicket. At every turn, it seemed, they brought more colors and virtuosity to the music than we have any right to expect, whether in grand solos or the most minor phrase.”
Watch an excerpt of the English Concert’s performance of Handel’s Messiah for BBC below – and hear it yourself on May 18 and 19 by the Hop’s own Handel Society, with stellar guest artists: