Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
DVD Review - Handel, Semele
The DVD begins with a an exterior view of the Zürich opera house. As it turns out, that's the highlight of the video.
by John Wall
After suffering through too many musical atrocities, I rarely go to staged operas unless they are advertised as historically-inspired stagings, and I hardly ever watch more than brief excerpts from opera DVDs. Modern stagings make a mockery of early opera for a few cheap laughs and outrageous stage director salaries.
I made an exception for Semele, one of my favorite Handel works, for which there still is no adequate recording. Here is what I wrote about Curnyn's Semele on Chandos, by default the preferred version:
What a strange and annoying recording! My Lute I Shall Adore -- it sounds like I'm sitting next to the lute (guitar in one aria) in an alcove away from the rest of the performers. The close-miked lute drowns out the harpsichord and even the organ and is on par with the chorus. Joshua sings with heavy vibrato unsuited to baroque music, but Pearson is a more extreme wobbler whose aria sounds like a musical interlude from a 1930s movie. There are a handful of superb movements, including "Iris Hence Away". (The lute was near the end of its road in opera by 1744, and the guitar never was used as a continuo instrument, despite it's presence in many recordings falsely promoted as "authentic".) Update: Anthony Hicks in EMR 124: 35 (April 2008) spotted a claim in the CD booklet that the orchestral stringing is especially historically informed in using equal tension strings with only a minority of the players using metal wound strings. If only these smallish HIP details weren't overwhelmed by the HUP theorbo and guitar! This epitomizes my response to critics who argue that it is unfair to expect historical accuracy from early music groups. When they market their performances with claims to be "original", "authentic", or "historically informed", they are inviting a high standard of scrutiny.
Quite understandably, Decca is marketing the Semele DVD as Cecilia Bartoli, one of the few classical performers who can sell records like a pop star. The fact that she is oddly miscast in a serious and vocally demanding role in an English oratorio/opera makes no difference. Most Bartoli groupies probably have no idea that Semele isn't some kind of Italian comedy. The DVD jacket features photos of Bartoli front and back, and her name appears in a larger font than anything else other than "Handel, Semele." There are six more photos of Bartoli in the enclosed booklet, along with a full spread of her stretched out on the floor behind the clear plastic DVD holders. A sticker on the cover touts comments by a couple of hacks in the Mainstream Media: "You can't take your eyes and ears off her" -- The Sunday Times & "Bartoli's stunning performance" -- International Herald Tribune.
After watching the Semele DVD, I'm ready to rush back to Curnyn's recording (and Martini's recording for the three fine substitute arias not in HG). The DVD begins with a an exterior view of the Zürich opera house. As it turns out, that's the highlight of the video. William Christie directs a very large period instrument orchestra, La Scintilla, from the harpsichord. He begins at breakneck speed, a sign of things to come. I'm impressed with the ability of the orchestra to play the overture so fast without falling apart, but it's certainly not a beautiful performance. It's difficult to imagine baroque dancers keeping up in the gavotte as rushed through by Christie.
The antics on stage are all copied from other modern stagings. I won't go into details, but there are reporters, English newspapers, a lighted globe, armchairs, a bed, and some undressing, though at least no nudity and no machine guns. If you've seen a modern staging of a baroque opera, there's nothing original here. If you see one, you've seen them all.
Despite excessive speed in many movements, Semele was heavily cut. Two of my favorite arias were omitted completely: "The Warbling Lark" (Semele) and "Despair no more shall wound me" (Athamas). As a result, the complete recording takes only 2 hours, 34 minutes including much after aria applause and the final curtain calls. The total time of the Chandos recording, without those interruptions, is 2 hours, 49 minutes, 35 seconds.
For the most part, William Christie's prior Handel recordings have honored the composer's intentions as best interpreted from the scores and knowledge of contemporary practices. In Semele, however, there are some strange and quite deviant movements. The A section of "I must with speed amuse her", on which Handel wrote "allegro ma non troppo", is almost unsingably fast, but the B section, which from the score presumably would have been performed at the same tempo as the A section, slows considerably for contrast with the A section. There was another aria where I noticed the same technique, although not so extreme. In "Where'er you walk", the repeat of the A section is performed pianissimo and is barely audible.
Even by low live performance DVD standards, audio is atrocious because of all the moving around onstage. On occasions when singers happened to be positioned upright, near microphones, the sound was barely acceptable. There's no great singing in this recording, but I can't fault the performers too much when they were made to run about, roll around in bed, lie on the floor, stand on chair arms, and fall down like Chevy Chase. (In fact, at times the staging looks like a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1976.) Bartoli sings with an Italian accent, and some of the others sing with German accents.
Conclusion: Not Recommended. For diehard Bartoli fans only.
August 14, 2009