I heard a semi-staged concert performance of Handel's *Semele* at Carnegie Hall on 4/14/19. I'm a big fan of Handel and was knocked out by Harry Bicket and The English Concert's performance of Handel's *Orlando* in 2016, so this caught my eye. Then I saw that Brenda Rae and Elizabeth DeShong were singing, and I RAN to buy a ticket!
DeShong is a young mezzo - - I first heard her in *The Enchanted Island* at the Met in 2013 and she almost stole the show in her one aria. Then I heard her again in *Semiramide* at the Met in 2018, this time in a leading role, and she really delivered on that early promise.
Rae is a young soprano - - she went to college at UW Madison, she moved to Madison just after I moved to NYC. She went on to do her master's at Juilliard and I heard her in *Miss Lonelyhearts* in 2006. It was a new opera by Lowell Lieberman, I didn't think much of the opera but Rae knocked me out. Her primary scene was the one moment where everything seemed to come into focus. It wasn't just that she was the best performer in the cast, she seemed to deliver the music and the drama in a way that no one else did. I kept an eye on her in Opera News and was thrilled to see her singing major roles in major houses - - as Zerbinetta in Munich, Lucia in Frankfurt, Lulu in London, Violetta in Santa Fe, the Queen of the Night in Tokyo. And lots of Handel: Armida in *Rinaldo* at Glyndebourne, Ginevra in *Ariodante* in Chicago, and her Met debut as Poppea in *Agrippina* in spring of 2020. She's got a major career, and I was very excited to hear her again.
The orchestra came onstage and I instantly raised my eyebrow. First, conductor Harry Bicket was sitting at the harpsichord, which is typical for an early music conductor, but there was another harpsichord facing him, with that player also doubling on organ. I hadn't seen that before. And I'm a stickler when it comes to concert attire - - the men were wearing white tie and tails and the women were generally wearing concert black (black blouse or jacket and black slacks or skirt), but the concertmaster was wearing black slacks and a purple short-sleeved diaphanous blouse. Even a black short-sleeved diaphanous blouse would have been better, this look just did not work in the context of what others were wearing.
The overture was full of dark drama. Bicket's conducting showed what an extraordinary opera composer Handel is. His stuff really holds his own against anyone, he's earned his place beside Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, everyone else.
Bass Solomon Howard sang with authority as Cadmus. Counter tenor Christopher Lowrey was a disappointment, his sound was somewhat thin and downright vapid in the lower voice. I'd rather hear a biological female with a meatier voice. His aria "Your Tuneful Voice" was his one shining moment - - his voice was lavender, a nice contrast to DeShong's purple. And why not have a range of color?
Rae made her entrance in a stunning sapphire blue one-shouldered chiffon gown. Her voice was creamy and vibrant, but still delicate and able to paint details in a fine brush. Bravo to her and Bicket in her second aria (I think it was "The Morning Lark To Mine Accords His Note") - - she had a lot of coloratura (that's what we call all those fast runs) in the middle voice, which is a tricky area for a high soprano, but she projected easily. And then she moved the vocal line up in the da capo, which filled me with giddy delight.
A brief note about Handel operas: most of his arias have what's known as a da capo structure - - the singer does one thing (an A section), then a contrasting second thing (a B section), then goes back and repeats the first thing (A), back to the top, the head, the "capo." The fun is that the repeat is always ornamented in a thoughtful way. Da capo arias can be tiresome, in the wrong hands it can feel like wasted time. But in this performance, every da capo was exciting, full of bravura display, and cracking with drama.
DeShong was the other star of the performance, she is the real deal. I'm sure she gets tired of being called The New Marilyn Horne, but she's definitely the young singer on the scene doing those roles better than anyone else. What a glorious voice, the way it opens up on the bottom is total vocal gold.
Rae ended the first act with "Endless Pleasure, Endless Love," which was a total diva moment.
The second act opened with DeShong playing Juno, the villainess of the piece. It's always fun to see a performer having fun, and she was clearly having a blast. Her aria "Iris, Hence Away" should have been a show stopper, and she sang it within an inch of its life, but the staging worked against her. Ailish Tynan played Iris, Juno's handmaiden, and the director gave her all kinds of comic relief bits which were amusing but distracted the audience from the stupendous singing we were hearing from DeShong. This was a big misfire, I felt bad that she was being upstaged in her biggest moment.
Rae was a slice of heaven in "O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me." It's a priceless aria and her performance was sublime.
Benjamin Hulett played Jupiter. He's a classic English tenor: lean but firm, with a nice tight vibrato and even throughout his range. "Where E'er You Walk" was so sweet and tender, with added magic on the da capo with the strings playing very quietly.
The orchestra and singers came out for the third act and I had the thrill of being the first person to applaud. It's silly, but I like doing that. Get the ball rolling, show those people some love.
Bass Solomon Howard was back, this time playing Somnus, the god of sleep. He was darling, and the music was so witty.
Rae was over the top in "Myself I Shall Adore," a moment of total diva indulgence. The audience went totally nutty. Here's an interview she did for the Seattle Opera production, with excerpts from the aria, including a jaw-dropping high F at the end.
Her next aria, "No No, I'll Take No Less" was impressive in how she scaled her voice back to make it through the insanely long and florid phrases. And in her death aria she showed fantastic control and focus, even with her walk offstage.
I know that DeShong and Rae have had major performances all over the world, but this performance felt like a moment of discovery, not just for me but for the audience in general.