Whether Handel’s “Semele” is at heart an opera or an oratorio has been up for debate since its premiere. Its plot is operatic, a tale of lust, pride, envy, and other deadly sins. Its form is that of an oratorio, which typically tells a sacred story in recitatives, accompagnatas, and rousing choruses. Either way, “Semele” is about boundless passion, the kind of passion that drives humans and gods mad. The Handel and Haydn Society’s “Semele” at Symphony Hall on Friday did not brim with passion, but doled it out in small doses.
A quick synopsis: Semele is engaged to Athamas, but has her eye on a more divine lover: Jupiter, king of the gods, who spirits her away to the heavens right before her wedding. Juno, Jupiter’s wife, is none too happy about his infidelity, and tricks Semele into asking Jupiter to appear to her in his true form as a god. He does so at her demand, which kills her. The English libretto by William Congreve has endearing moments but is often stilted. The score has brilliant, evocative scenes but just as many bland patches, and even with cuts, it is not a compact work. It is largely up to the musicians to carry the piece, because the music won’t do it for them.
British soprano Sarah Tynan was a beguiling, vivacious Semele, and the character shone through in her voice, countenance, and posture. Her florid “Myself I shall adore” fluttered in ecstasy, and her final air insisting that Jupiter show himself to her glowed with greedy joy. She was unequally matched in her consorts; Jeremy Budd had a weary grain in his timbre as Jupiter, and conductor Harry Christophers had to quiet the orchestra multiple times so as not to drown him out, dampening the drama. When the strings attempted swoons and swells during “Where’er you walk,” Budd did not match them, and his manner onstage was stolid, unlike Mount Olympus’s most notorious womanizer. Countertenor Tim Mead as Semele’s intended, Athamas, had no problems rising above the orchestra, but his cool voice was indifferent until the final runs of his last aria, which showed some fire. The events of the plot triggered little change in either man, and the vast spatial distance between singers onstage did not help.
The versatile mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy pulled her weight and more, singing the role of Semele’s sister Ino with innocent grace and soft-edged phrases and transforming into the imperious Juno with rage written on her face and venom lacing her voice. The robust bass-baritone Matthew Brook was imposing as Cadmus and hilariously hammy as Somnus. He blinked blearily at the lights overhead during his “Leave me, loathsome light,” and instantly roused himself for a lusty “More sweet is that name” after Juno promised him the Grace Pasithea, his gyrations making no secret of what kind of “soothe me awake” he had in mind. Mireille Asselin was a sprightly, sparkling Iris.
The Handel and Haydn Chorus was on form as usual, crisp and expressive. The orchestra illustrated simmering tension in the first overture and Somnus’s languid lair in the third, and the music seemed to whoop with delight in the most vigorous passages. Harpsichordist and organist Ian Watson expressed more in the few notes grounding the recitatives than was expressed in some entire airs. When passion sparked in this “Semele,” I hoped every time it would catch and burn, but all I could do was watch until it vanished, and wait for the next flare.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Friday (repeats Sunday). www.handelandhaydn.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.