The Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Handel Opera and Cambridge Early Music join forces for the first professional recording of John Eccles' Semele. Conducted by Julian Perkins, this recording was released in January 2021 and debuted at No. 3 in the Classical Music Charts. It was shortlisted for the Gramophone Award and was Recording of the Month in BBC Music Magazine, Disc of the Month in Opera, Record of the Week on BBC Radio 3 and Editor's Choice in Gramophone.
The year is 2107. Intrepid explorers can go back in time, providing they keep to the designated path. But in Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder (1952), one time-traveller becomes alarmed at the scheduled approach of a Tyrannosaurus rex and deviates by running off into the forest. On returning to the present, he notices a crushed butterfly on the sole of his boot. This mishap caused a hiccup in the food chain that has radically affected the political landscape of his own time.
John Eccles’ Semele could be considered a crushed butterfly that missed its moment. Composed in about 1706, its probable première was only in 1964. Yet it shows how English opera might have developed after Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 before the triumphant arrival in 1711 of the Saxon thunderbolt, George Frideric Handel.
And herein lies our challenge. Such is the success of Handel’s Semele that Eccles’ earlier version has, until recently, been a mere historical footnote. Moreover, as William Congreve’s modern editor, the late Professor Donald McKenzie, states, in setting the libretto ‘… Handel made it a concert and lightened it into comedy’, whereas ‘… Eccles deepened it, and in writing intimately at every point to its dramatic structure, set it musically within a world where divine malignancy, and the power to enforce it, inevitably darken all human hopes of happiness.’ Here, Semele’s opening aria shows all the uncertainty and fragility of a young girl who simply doesn’t know whether she should marry the mortal Athamas or go with Jupiter, King of the Gods. The music veers between arioso and recitative in which a long-held note in the violin line is nothing short of a primal wail. In Act III, Handel indulges in virtuosic excess in Semele’s ‘Myself I shall adore’, while Eccles actually goes against Congreve’s libretto indications in setting these same words in recitative. Eccles’ confused heroine has integrity but falls victim to Juno’s and Jupiter’s matrimonial discord.
Congreve wrote that ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. This opera pivots on a Goddess Scorned, so what could possibly go right for Semele? Juno’s deadly outburst with ‘Not one of curst Agenor’s Race I’ll spare’ captures a wronged queen hell-bent on revenge. How alarming that this revenge has the added sweetness of torture: Semele’s life ebbs away over the course of a mournful symphony that lasts 26 long bars. Worse still that this inexperienced mortal is one whom Jupiter has come to love. When he realises that Semele must die from his own lightning bolts, the lurch into F-sharp minor for ‘Ah! Take heed’ is both devastating and poignant in its brevity. (Could this funereal sonority replete with throbbing quavers have inspired Handel’s ‘Se pietà’ in Giulio Cesare?) Jupiter’s following number sees him trapped by his own oath: the words ‘’Tis past Recall’ are set identically three times interspersed within recitative. This is a horrific moment of self-realisation in which we realise that even the King of the Gods cannot escape Fate.
These flawed characters can of course only come to life with a first-rate team. Together with the deep commitment of every performer, this adventure has been blessed by the expertise of Professor Peter Holman, Dr. Alan Howard and Dr. Ruth Smith (my final pre-recording conversation with Ruth concerning this work’s feisty marriage between text and music lasted over six hours!). The calm professionalism of Alexander Van Ingen and his colleagues at the Academy of Ancient Music, together with the proactive support of Cambridge Handel Opera and Cambridge Early Music, show what can be achieved through creative partnerships.
How might things have been different had Handel not settled in London? We here take on the mantle of the intrepid explorer in deviating from the linear path of musical hagiography and ‘uncrushing’ a butterfly. In doing so, we discover an opera in which the potent fusion of the English language with music bears comparison with the best of Eccles’ successors. Perhaps the harrowing narrative of the mortal adrift even finds resonances in twentieth-century opera. I hope you can share my experience of this English gem on its own terms as a profoundly moving and life-affirming drama.
© Julian Perkins