The Northern Aldborough Festival opens with a concert performance, with renowned soloists and orchestra, of Handel’s stunning oratorio Semele, composed at the peak of his powers. The ‘musical drama…in the manner of an oratorio’ was composed in 1743 and tells of a beautiful mortal (Semele), whose short but spectacular love affair with Jupiter, King of the Gods, comes to a terrifying end in consequence of both her own vanity and the scheming of Jupiter’s insanely jealous wife Juno. Written at the peak of Handel’s powers, it is crammed with his most sparkling and dramatic music: spectacular orchestral numbers and powerful choruses combine with heart-stopping arias, including the popular Where’er you walk and the coloratura showpiece Myself I shall adore.
This year’s concert performance of Handel’s Semele is the first step towards what we hope could become an annual in-house opera production.
Why we have not done this before?
The cost of putting on opera can best be described as Byzantine. The finely-honed production that you see at the premiere of an opera is the culmination of months of preparation and rehearsals. Singers, director and conductor are often engaged years in advance, every word must be learnt ‘off copy’ and stage rehearsals can last several weeks. The time of these highly trained artists is expensive, as are the costs of building sets, preparing lighting and technical plans and hiring costumes. One reason why our regular visiting companies such as OperaUpClose and Charles Court Opera have been able to offer such admirable quality on a budget is that there are considerable economies of scale when a show is repeated, and even a point, eventually, when a production breaks into profit. For the Festival, multiple performances through a network of other venues or festivals would be the obvious path to take, and this is something we are working on currently.
A concert performance?
In year one we wanted to offer the highest possible musical standards, and to that end no expense has been spared on engaging a cast of singers that regularly grace some of the world’s great stages including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, La Fenice in Venice and Seattle Opera. The orchestra is the house band for the Cambridge Handel Opera Company and the conductor, Julian Perkins, a Handel specialist and regular guest conductor for the Academy of Ancient Music, The Sixteen and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Unusually among Handel’s oratorios, Semele, composed in 1744, is a hybrid, a drama instructed by Handel to be performed “in the manner of an oratorio”. The score features decidedly operatic elements – a host of spectacular arias and a sassy story that is hardly spiritual – but it is also written in English and contains many large choral numbers, a staple of the oratorio style. Several of the arias, “Where’er you walk”, “No, no, I’ll take no less” and “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?” are classics of the repertoire, and deservedly well known. What cannot be denied is the clear narrative thread and the sheer theatricality in this piece, meaning a concert performance of unusual drama can be expected.