A sense of déjà vu can be excused here. Time and again witty lines from this opera’s libretto by William Congreve, one of the leading lights of Restoration comedy, bring to mind Handel’s always popular Semele.
This new recording, though, reminds us that Congreve wrote his libretto a generation earlier for another composer entirely. John Eccles was a contemporary of Purcell and his Semele may have been planned for the opening of the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London, in 1705.
It was not performed in the end, though the reason is unknown. The opera’s premiere was probably not until its first modern performance in the 1960s. This first professional recording on period instruments marks another step forwards in its fortunes.
Although Eccles cannot match Handel for big showpiece arias, his Semele sparkles just as brightly. His setting of Congreve’s text takes an hour less and the pace whips along, as jewel-like solos flash past, interspersed with vividly descriptive instrumental numbers.
Anna Dennis is delightful as the ambitious mortal Semele, who falls in love with Jupiter and gets frazzled by his thunderbolt. Richard Burkhard and Helen Charlston mine some divine comic scenes as the king of the gods and his jealous wife Juno. The rest of the large cast is excellent and Julian Perkins gets a fizzing performance out of the Academy of Ancient Music, enough to make Eccles seem a rival to Handel, at least for a couple of hours.
‘Eccles: Semele’ is released by AAM