This spring, the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, and John Eliot Gardiner embark on a European tour with a new production of Handel’s Semele (April 8–May 8). Directed by Thomas Guthrie, this takes them to four iconic European concert halls – the Paris Philharmonie, Barcelona’s Palau de la Música, Milan’s La Scala, and Rome’s SalaSanta Cecilia – as well as to London’s oldest new theatre: the Alexandra Palace Theatre, a faithfully restored marvel of Victorian engineering that has just been reopened for the first time in 80 years.
Gardiner, the winner of more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist, considers Semele ‘Handel’s sexiest opera’. Indeed, in Handel’s lifetime the opera was suppressed after only a few performances, thanks in part to the sensuality of such hedonistic arias as ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’, and a risqué storyline drawn from one of the more salacious passages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on which Restoration playwright William Congreve based his libretto. This depicts Jupiter, king of the gods, and Semele, the mortal princess he takes as his mistress. Their affair enrages Jupiter’s wife, Juno, so by way of revenge, she tricks Semele into seeing the god in his divine form. As the goddess intends, Semele burns to death in the flames from Jupiter’s thunderbolts. Yet there is a happy ending of sorts, when from her ashes arises their unborn child, who will grow up to be Bacchus, god of ecstasy and wine.
Gardiner explains: ‘Semele is the most erotically charged of all Handel’s music dramas and the nearest he came to writing a true opera in English.His imagination was fired up by William Congreve’s libretto, which describes Jupiter’s descent in the shape of an eagle and his abduction of Semele. The music is stunning – rich in melody, sensuous harmony, and a wonderful mixture of comedy, romance and tragedy. Perhaps the most modern feature of Semele is the sharpness with which Handel draws his female characters – from the cunning and jealousy of Juno to the raw ambition, coquetry and sexuality of Semele.’
The tour marks the first time Gardiner and his ensembles will have undertaken the opera since recording it for Erato in 1983; almost three decades later, in 2012, BBC Music magazine still named theirs ‘the best-conducted Semele on disc’. Moreover, the upcoming production features some material that they have never previously performed at all. They are now using a fuller version of Handel’s work, including a number of passages very rarely heard in modern performance.
This fuller score will be presented in an original concert staging by British director Thomas Guthrie, of whom Opera News declares: ‘Guthrie is hot news. His imagination knows no bounds’. English soprano Louise Alder, named Young Singer of the Year at the 2017 International Opera Awards, will star in the title role, opposite the Jupiter of young English tenor Hugo Hymas, ‘a name to watch’ (The Guardian). In the dual roles of Juno and Ino, Semele’s sister, they will be joined by French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot, whose ‘fierce performance’ (New York Times) asCléopâtre highlighted Gardiner and the ensembles’ recent ‘Berlioz Series 2018’ tour. Rounding out the international cast are two Italians: ‘superb’ countertenor Carlo Vistoli (Financial Times) and bass Gianluca Buratto, who ‘clearly has a major career before him, one that may soon take him to the Met’ (New Yorker). Richardot, Hymas and Buratto were also soloists with Gardiner and the same forces on their celebrated ‘Monteverdi 450’ tour of 2017.
It was in London that Semele first premiered in 1744. The opera returns to the capital on May 2, now coming for the first time to the Alexandra Palace Theatre. Perched high above the city and inaugurated by Queen Victoria in 1873, Alexandra Palace was built, not as a royal residence, but as ‘The People’s Palace’.Affectionately known as Ally Pally – a nickname thought to have been coined by Dame Gracie Fields, who performed there in the 1920s – it was a public centre for recreation, education and entertainment that would eventually become the birthplace of the BBC. From 1875, its centrepiece was the Alexandra Palace Theatre, where audiences of up to 3,000 could enjoy the spectacle of pantomime, opera, drama and ballet. A feat of Victorian engineering, its impressive stage machinery allowed performers to fly through the air and disappear beneath the stage. However, as time passed, the theatre struggled to compete with its West End counterparts. Soon it was used only as a cinema, chapel and workshop, before being closed to the public for a full eight decades: frozen in a state of beautiful, arrested decay. After years of research, design and fundraising that culminated in a two-year restoration process, it was not until this past December that a new generation of Londoners was finally welcomed back to enjoy its long-hidden charms. Semele represents the first opera to be mounted at the Alexandra Palace Theatre since this historic reopening.
The tour is one of several upcoming highlights for the Monteverdi ensembles and Gardiner. This week, the English Baroque Soloists make their South American debut with two programmes of Bach’s instrumental music at Colombia’s Cartagena International Music Festival (Jan 9 & 10). Both programmes feature concerto collaborations with international keyboard soloistPaolo Zanzu– a regular collaborator with the MCO ensembles, most notably as one of Gardiner’s Assistant Musical Directors for the 2017 worldwide Monteverdi trilogy tour – and ensemble leader Kati Debretzeni, who undertakes the solo role in Bach’s First and Second Violin Concertos and in the Keyboard Concerto in D minor, as arranged for violin. Together with Bach’s F-major Oboe Concerto in the familiar arrangement for violin, all three concertos may also be heard on the English Baroque Soloists’ forthcoming recording. Due for release on the ensembles’ own SDG label this fall, this once again features Debretzeni as soloist.
Also coming soon from SDG is a new Easter-themed recording from the Monteverdi Choir and Gardiner. A collection of choral works by Cornysh, L’Héritier, Taverner, Tallis, Morley, Gesualdo, Schütz, Rheinberger, Britten and others, this is due for release in early April.
This year marks both the 150th anniversary of Hector Berlioz’s death and the 30th anniversary of theOrchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Continuing its five-year commitment to the French Romantic composer’s music, the orchestra looks forward to celebrating these twin milestones with a series of staged concerts of Berlioz’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini. Representing the work’s first modern performances on period instruments, the series follows on the heels of the ‘Berlioz Series 2018’, which took the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Gardiner to the BBC Proms, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and six more key European and U.S. destinations. The critical response was euphoric. After the New York concerts, the New York Times observed: ‘The boldness of the music was matched by the performers. At 75, Mr. Gardiner is relentlessly inventive and risk-seeking.’Likewise, the Amsterdam performance was ‘a true triumph’ (Opera Click), and the London one scored five-star reviews in The Times, the Arts Desk, and the Financial Times, which concluded: ‘Berlioz has no idea what he missed.’