Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Semele e Giove, by Sebastiano Ricci

Marin Marais: Sémélé, Tragédie en Musique
American Bach Soloists Academy Orchestra and American Bach Choir, Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. San Francisco Conservatory of Music, August 14, 2015.

If you know the music of Marin Marais, it is probably through the recordings and performances of Jordi Savall. Savall provided the superb soundtrack of Alain Corneau's 1991 film Tous les matins du monde (All the mornings of the world). The Tous les matins du monde soundtrack and Savall's other Marais recordings primarily feature music for solo viola da gamba or small consorts, and if you're not already familiar with them I can't recommend them too highly.

But there is another side to Marais. In addition to his exquisite music for viola da gamba he also composed large-scale orchestral pieces, including several operas for the Académie Royale de Musique, the court opera of Louis XIV. Marais served as the conductor of the resplendent Académie orchestra for five years in the early 1700s.

When Sémélé received its premiere in April 1709, Marais was at the height of his fame. His opera Alcyone had been a huge success three years previously, and Sémélé was explicitly modelled on the earlier opera. Both operas featured a remarkable instrumental evocation of disaster: in Alcyone, a storm; in Sémélé, an earthquake. And both operas were based on tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In Ovid's telling of the myth of Semele, when Jupiter becomes enamored of the beautiful young daughter of the king of Thebes, Juno becomes jealous. Visiting Semele in disguise, Juno tricks her into extracting the promise of a gift from Jupiter. When he swears an unbreakable oath that he will fulfill her wish, Semele demands that he prove his identity by revealing himself in all his glory. However, as Jupiter knows too well, no mortal can withstand the sight of him unveiled, and Semele dies. In Antoine Houdar de la Motte's libretto, though, Jupiter foils Juno by making Semele immortal; meanwhile, the luckless Theban citizens perish in "a torrent of fire."

But unlike Alcyone, Sémélé was not a success. While in the decades after its premiere Alcyone was revived four times, after its initial run Sémélé remained unperformed for nearly 300 years; it received its first modern performances in France only in 2006. But last week, as part of its Summer Festival & Academy "Versailles and the Parisian Baroque" under the leadership of artistic director Jeffrey Thomas, American Bach Soloists addressed this historical neglect by giving the first-ever performances of Sémélé outside of Europe.

Jeffrey Thomas backstage. Photo by Gene Kosoy, courtesy of ABS

In their program notes Jeff McMillan and Jeffrey Thomas attribute the opera's initial failure to Le Grand Hiver, the bitterly cold winter of 1708-09. The Seine froze, grain shipments were disrupted, and food riots broke out in many cities. While temperatures had moderated by April, the winter wheat crop had been destroyed and bread shortages continued. The general atmosphere of crisis may well have had an inhibitory effect on opera attendance.

Sémélé itself features a communal crisis, brought about not by the forces of nature but by human vanity and pride, a goddess's vindictiveness, and a god's rash promise. This social dimension is perhaps the greatest difference between Marais' version of Ovid's tale and Handel's opera of 35 years later on the same subject. Marais' opera features choruses and dance interludes which involve the entire city of Thebes in the tragedy, whereas Handel's opera keeps the focus entirely on Semele herself.

Another difference for those who know the Handel opera is that Marais' is much more richly scored, with a special emphasis on the low strings. For the Festival performances of Sémélé members of the ABS orchestra were supplemented by the ABS Academy, instrumentalists from their young artists' program. There were five contrabasses on the crowded stage, something I had never seen before, and the reason for their numbers became clear during the climactic earthquake scene.

The nearly 30-strong American Bach Choir and the 50-odd members of the ABS Academy Orchestra created a huge and beautifully intricate sound in the relatively intimate confines of the San Francisco Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The vocal soloists, all drawn from Academy participants, were uniformly excellent; special mention should be made of Rebecca Myers Hoke as Sémélé, Sara LeMesh as Junon, and Christopher Besch as Jupiter, who handled their virtuosic roles beautifully.

The opera was given in concert—there would have been no room for a staging—but this led to the only issue with this otherwise splendid performance. Following the practice established by his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marais filled Sémélé with dance numbers. But that meant that the narrative was regularly interrupted for extended instrumental interludes. Perhaps because we were hearing the opera for the first time, one menuet or passepied, delightful as they were initially, soon began to sound like another.

The dance music also brought the drama to a complete halt. In a staged performance the spectacle of the dancers might have allowed us to overlook the resulting dramatic stasis (or in the hands of an inventive choreographer, the dance sequences might have been a way of continuing the drama by other means). But when at the key moment of crisis in Act V when Jupiter is about to reveal himself Marais inserted three dances for the Thebans, the sense of dramatic deflation was palpable. Judicious cuts in the dance music would have made for tauter theater.

But to make this complaint feels unappreciative. To have the opportunity to hear this magnificent and unjustly neglected score was truly a privilege, and Thomas and his musicians are to be commended for performing it so beautifully.

Update 22 August 2015: Here is a small taste of the score from the recording by Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet. In this duet, Shannon Mercer as Sémélé and Marc Labonnette as her father Cadmus urge Jove to descend; this brief duet occurs right after the Second Air for the Thebans and just before the Third Air for the Thebans and the earthquake scene:

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