Anyone who has ever taken a voice lesson or attended a student vocal recital of students has either sung or heard “Where ‘ere you walk” from Handel’s decidedly secular and operatic oratorio Semele. YouTube lists something like 150 interpretations of every vocal type and stylistic manner imaginable. Karaoke singers can do it at home thanks to accompaniments posted in several keys. And treatments of the entire opera ranging from stand-and-deliver oratorio and period stagings to the liveliest directorial conceits reside there. Want organ in the continuo mix, or prefer harpsichord? No problem.
In honor of the aria, a vicious wet gale fanned the Avenue of the Arts glade, pelting patrons arriving for the Handel and Haydn Society’s transparent traversal of the complete work Friday night. Enthusiasts of the form should consider attending Sunday afternoon’s reprise.
At this point in the organization’s long history, its combined choral and instrumental forces can absolutely be counted upon to respond to the artistic cajolings of the generously theatrical Harry Christophers with reliably attractive and nuanced, historically informed tones. The continuo team of Ian Watson, harpsichord and organ; Frances Kelly, harp; Paula Chateauneuf, theorbo; Guy Fishman, cello; and Erik Higgins, bass, proved exquisitely sensitive to mood and meter.
Handel set the convoluted libretto from William Congreve into 78 numbers, telling a cautionary tale of interactions among divines and mortals wherein hubris yields to nemesis though the agencies of ten characters and choruses variously of nymphs, swains, zephyrs, augurs, and priests. Absent scenery and action in this concert version, Teresa Neff’s very helpful talking book synopsis [HERE] using uncredited musical excerpts grounded us. By all means, wade in.
Like Semele in “Myself I shall adore,” Handel often looked in a mirror, liked what he saw, and frequently reflected it back into a subsequent endeavor. Semele’s borrowings from Messiah and Acis and Galetea are many. Unfortunately, the consistency of inspiration is not as high as in those two, and too much time is wasted on exposition. A compleat man of the theater, Handel might not have been pleased about how Thespis’s legacy was noticeably absent from the interpreters of three of the principal roles last night.
In the title role, soprano Sarah Tynan displayed much bright and agile vocalism to a part that rewarded it, though her somewhat bipolar tic of starting each held note with straight tone before commencing to vibrate, became an annoying quirk. For the most part she stiffly avoided interactions with the other players. Despite her bright duetting with the Aisslinn Nosky-led unison strings in Act II’s “With fond desiring,” her pantings and pinings for Jove failed to embody carnal longing; in the final act she achieved a measure of self-satisfaction, though, in the slyly demented “Myself I shall adore” aria which sets up her fall in a vivid precursor to “Glitter and be gay.”
Countertenor Tim Mead took a while to warm up as Athamas. The way he husbanded his resources (instead of Semele) in Act I perhaps explained why Semele preferred Jupiter to her mortal intended. Not until his Act III aria “Despair no more” did he give out room-filling tones and generous conviction.
Essaying Jupiter, the king of the gods, tenor Jeremy Budd proved far less Jovian than Bryn Terfel in the transposed example of “Where ‘ere ye walk” that H+H curiously linked to its website [HERE]. His light tenor had a fine polish and poise which would have done nicely in a recording, but his stage command was underwhelming. His rendered the famous walking aria in a narrow groove with little credible swainishness. Only in his regretfully melting offering of his “softest lightning” in the third act did his mien fully align with the stage action.
Mireille Asselin brought a very attractive stage presence, attitude, musicality and a splendid ping to Iris. One can see and hear why her career at the Met is advancing. Two men stepped out of the chorus with stunning proof of why that body is Boston’s best: baritone Woodrow Bynum portrayed a priest with rolling dignity, and tenor Stefan Reed radiated healthy tenor rays as Apollo.
If the chorus is less of an actor in this oratorio than others of its ilk, it nevertheless has some top-drawer moments. Three of the numbers deserve placement in Handel’s pantheon, to wit, the Donner und Blitzen of “Avert these omens” which kindled flaming choral pyrotechnics, and “Oh terror and astonishment,” which recalled “He was chastised.” Under Christophers’s dramatic shaping, the 28 singers placed perfection of enunciation and mastery of choral line wholly in the service of dramatic expression and conveyance of meaning. And even if it doesn’t quite rise to the infectious giddiness of a similar number in Acis and Galatea, “Happy we shall be” closed the festivities in a trumpets and drums lovefest.
Which leaves us the pleasant task of crediting the four most satisfying portrayals (from two doubling singers). From her first strutting angry mezzo entrance, Paula Murrihy commanded the stage, as intensity of attitude allowed her fully to embody jealous lovers Ino and Juno in terrestrial and heavenly spheres. Her vocal production, confident movement, and soul-mirroring countenance illuminated text and music as did only one other.
Matthew Brook, whether as the stately Cadmus or the doe-eyed but blustering Somnus, put every note and gesture right. In “Leave me loathsome light,” the inverse of Haydn’s later inspired invocation at the beginning of Creation, Handel found witty, hilarious, and entirely original devices of text setting and coloration. Brook’s stagey awakening and loping, lumbagoed jig reminded us that opera requires more than just words and music. His handsome baritone and vivid stage business worked perfectly for this brilliant comic turn. And upon awakening, he stopped the show with “More sweet is that name,” a number which channeled the posture and business from “Oh ruddier than a cherry.”
“Wassup Doc?”, we often wondered during the evening. Though understanding it as perhaps a sui generis constituent of Christophers’s multi-year survey of Handel’s oratorio canon rather than as an opera, the show’s minimal blocking and the generally inert elements of interpersonal chemistry still did little to advance a busy narrative. Projections of Baroque stagecraft would have placed us more securely in the archaic realms of Handel, Congreve, and the mythmakers. Supertitles would have released us from booklet bondage, and hey, I’ve always wanted to see a chariot pulled by peacocks. The staid old Symphony Hall would have rocked with some garlands, nymphs, and satyrs.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.