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Interview, Julian Perkins on John Eccles's Semele

Julian PerkinsHandel's Semele has seen its fair share of recordings over the years, but it's by no means the only operatic adaptation of the tragic myth. A notable forerunner is John Eccles's setting - using the same William Congreve libretto that Handel would do a few decades later - which received a much-needed new recording earlier this year from Julian Perkins and the Academy of Ancient Music.

The similarities with, and differences from, Handel's work are fascinating, and the work represents a fascinating glimpse of how English music might have developed had history turned out differently. I spoke to Julian about some of these "what-ifs".

This is not quite the first performance of Eccles’s work, but the first professional period recording. How did the project to bring Semele to a wider audience first come about?

I am indebted to Peter Holman both for alerting me to this work and for providing the bulk of the funding towards it through his old opera company, Opera Restor’d.

On the musicology side of things, how much work was involved in terms of preparing editions and digging up the necessary resources?

We based our performance on Richard Platt’s excellent edition from 2000, in Musica Britannica. There are a few small changes here and there – I consulted the original score at the Royal College of Music, the (supposed) autograph score, and there are occasional bits missing. For a couple of recitatives we had to massage it slightly. But on the whole it’s based on that Musica Britannica edition, which is published by Stainer & Bell.

I benefitted enormously from advice from Peter Holman, Alan Howard and Ruth Smith, all scholars. We spoke at length about choices of tempi – Peter knows the work well – and Ruth advised on how the libretto ties in with the music, and Alan on the historical background. I consider myself fortunate to be able to consult these scholars, and one of my jobs is to act as a conduit between scholarship and performance – I’m a performer but I try to be informed about it, so consulting these authorities is a great bonus.

It seems in many ways that Eccles was a natural successor to Purcell; do you think this album is among other things a kind of glimpse into an “alternate history” of how English opera might have developed had Handel not brought his Italianate style across the Channel and taken London by storm?

I do. It’s ironic that Semele was victim to the fashion for Italian opera as the work is a brilliant fusion of the English and Italian styles in much the same way that Purcell fused the English and French styles in many of his works. An all-sung English opera in the Italian style seemed suited to the Italian trend sweeping London in the 1700s but, with Handel’s staging of Rinaldo in London in 1711, history changed. Handel swept all before him and, as is well known, brought about the fashion for opera seria. Had this not happened, I believe that Eccles would have spent less time fishing and more time in the opera pit. Perhaps he wasn’t enough of a politician either.

So in a sense, was Semele actually not Italian enough for the trends that were already in motion?

Possibly. In many ways it is an “Italian” opera – although of course sung in English. This is particularly apparent in the recitative style – nuanced and highly developed. It reminded me of Monteverdi’s recitatives – dotted quavers and semiquavers notated, which for this time is an unusual level of precision. Handel’s recits are much broader in their brush-strokes by comparison, with an innate flexibility. When you compare Monteverdi, his notation is often more detailed and nuanced and, following Purcell’s example, Eccles does the same in Semele for the English language as Monteverdi does for Italian.

Is the idea of a historical “what-if” maybe not so close after all, then? Might the Italianisation process have been inevitable, with or without Handel?

There’s certainly a strong Italianate influence before Handel. One of the theories surrounding Semele is actually that its performances were thwarted by a cabal of Italian composers operating in London at that time – it’s almost a Mafia scenario! And it’s interesting to wonder whether, if Handel hadn’t come along, it would simply have been a different composer who fulfilled that role.

Eccles’s Semele may have suffered from a run of bad luck that prevented it from being staged during his lifetime, but he was far from an obscure composer even so, particularly among song-lovers. How did he end up fading into the background of history while Purcell conspicuously did not?

Eccles suffered in coming after the genius of Purcell, much like Buxtehude suffered in being regarded solely as a forebear to Bach (it could be worse!). He also merited omission or footnoting in the history of musical pigeonholing in falling between the stylistic cracks by straddling two quite distinct styles: Restoration drama and Italian opera. Despite his evident popularity in his lifetime, it wasn’t convenient to mention somebody whose story didn’t fit into the hagiography of musical history. Musicologists would (rightly) deny that this is the case now, but I’m talking about a few decades ago. I remember when I was growing up, everything was described as leading neatly into the next style, and I don’t think it worked like that. We’re maybe more nuanced in our thinking now, and it’s easy to criticise previous generations, but the sense that a composer has to have a masterpiece and fit into a style seems to be pervasive.

Semele heralds a move from the “semi-opera” style of Purcell’s King Arthur and The Fairy Queen to all-sung English opera such as Arne. Was Eccles the first to fully abandon the spoken dialogue that distinguished “semi-operas”, or were other English composers moving in this direction at the same time?

Semele is certainly a landmark in the thwarted rise of all-sung Italian-style opera in English and follows on from Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Had history worked differently, Eccles, Daniel Purcell and John Weldon would have been amongst those who would have developed this style of composition following the competition of 1700-01, in which they set Congreve’s The Judgement of Paris. As it is, we have to wait until Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945 for all-sung opera in English to be internationally successful.

It’s a milestone in a sense, but it wasn’t the very first one. That competition I mentioned was funded by a group of nobility and was for an all-sung English opera in the wake of the death of Henry Purcell. Everyone thought Eccles would win, but in fact Weldon did.

I actually recorded the Daniel Purcell Judgement of Paris a few years ago and interestingly there is no recitative. It’s all very much aria-based. Whereas with Semele, it’s much more composed of shorter arias and sections of recitative. It invites interesting speculation around what might have developed after the competition if things had turned out differently.

The very fact that this competition happened at all suggests that there were at least some influential people who were aware of, and wanted to fill, this gap in English musical life – was there an appetite that wasn’t being satisfied?

After Purcell’s early death, they couldn’t have known that Handel would come along shortly. I suppose there was an attempt to find an identity – there were a lot of gifted musicians around, and they wanted to hone the style that Purcell had been developing.

It may have also been a way for them to fight their corner. With Italian influence growing (it was already strong in London before Handel), there may have been a desire, while embracing that, to also celebrate Englishness in some way. Given the politics of the time, it must have been quite fraught – everything rather in flux in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, and a lot of uncertainty.

The extensive accompanying notes to this recording mention, among other things, the specific use of lead mutes for the strings to give an even more ethereal tone than conventional mutes (a sound heard to great effect accompanying Somnus’s Leave me, loathsome light). How widespread was this special effect, and how did it fall out of use?

It’s hard to say how widespread the use of lead mutes was in Eccles’s time, especially as so few examples survive. As the booklet mentions, Lully, Purcell and Vivaldi also specified lead mutes. I guess they fell out of use partly for technical reasons (the difficulty of keeping them stably and reliably attached to vibrating bridges, an issue exacerbated as orchestras grew in size). They were also doubtless expensive and time-consuming to make, so it makes sense to think that wood came to be the standard when muting became more common in the middle of the eighteenth century. As Bill Thorp says, perhaps there were also representations from the Venerable Association of Roofers...

Special sonic effects in early music sometimes seem to be limited to the rumbling of a sheet of metal for the thunderous entry of a god… was there more to it than that, in terms of “extended techniques” and using instruments more freely?

Oh, I think so, yes. Particularly violinists – Biber was a big fan of scordatura, the retuning of the strings. They were quite hands-on with their instruments. It’s also nice that Eccles includes it in the place where Somnus is referring to his eyelids being as heavy as lead – it was fun to play with that. There’s that visual element, as with the cross-stringing in Biber’s Rosary Sonatas when the subject matter is the Crucifixion, and it has a sense of being a musicians’ in-joke.

Ovid, from whom the story of Semele is drawn, was out of fashion at this time for arguably the exact kinds of things that we find in this opera – his paganism and his relative sexual explicitness. So what made this story appeal so much to Congreve and Eccles (and of course subsequently Handel) as an inspiration for a new stage work?

Not all agree that Ovid was out of fashion at this time. He still featured on the school curriculum as an exemplar of versification, and his works continued to form part of the shared cultural capital of the educated elite while his poems enjoyed another, racier life in translation and a wide variety of imitation.

Eccles and Congreve had history with The Judgement of Paris, which had been written for the ‘Musick Prize’ of 1701. (Anthony Rooley goes as far as to compare Eccles and Congreve with other pairings: Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.) Given the publicity arising from this competition, there was probably an appetite for another Classical story that would have been heightened with the celebrated soprano-actress Anne Bracegirdle in the lead role. Known as ‘the celebrated virgin’, Bracegirdle is said to have performed mostly Eccles’s music – anticipating perhaps something of the relationship between Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.

Paganism was no problem for 18th-century England, see the immense reverence for the epics of Homer and Virgil, standard schoolbook material. What it would have meant for Eccles’s and Handel's audiences was that they needn’t take the religious elements 100% seriously. They could legitimately find the gods and goddesses more human than divine – which of course they turn out to be. As Ruth Smith says: ‘What Ovid offers Congreve (and Eccles, and Handel) is terrific scope for ambivalence of authorial intention, for irony, and for both emotional recognition and amused detachment on the part of the audience.’

Sexual explicitness: Congreve was a notoriously racy, on-the-edge playwright, lambasted by moral reformers of his day. It’s no wonder he was attracted to Ovid - not that the Metamorphoses is very racy compared with some of Ovid's other works. Congreve’s libretto is much racier and more explicit than Ovid’s story, and he makes fundamental changes. In fact all of Act 1, most of Act 2, and much of Act 3 are his own invention. While Jupiter is something of a restoration rake and enjoys his sexual conquests, Eccles makes Semele a darker, more brooding character who ultimately falls victim to Juno’s and Jupiter’s matrimonial discord.

So audiences weren’t ‘bored’ by the Semele story at this point?

No, I think they were excited by a new take on it, especially given that Congreve invented a lot of it based on the Ovid story. There was a setting by Marin Marais, but perhaps there hadn’t been a new version for a while in language that people would find fresh and modern. The story was certainly out there in the operatic ether – Eccles’s audience would have known the references, with their education being much more Classical than it is today.

Does that suggest that Eccles’s Semele might be mostly pitched at that end of society, rather than at the everyday people who might have enjoyed the Beggar’s Opera and similar works?

Certainly the idea of making the gods human makes it immediate to people, and enables them to identify with both gods and humans, and the way their behaviour overlaps. It’s just a love-story, really; many people who enjoy Semele today know nothing of the original myth. There was even a production of Handel’s Semele which was based around Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; topical for its time, and reportedly it went down well with the critics, but the themes are eternal – the powerful man, the mistress and so on. It’s also been suggested that Handel’s opera was written as an allegory for contemporary politics, with Athamas representing the Hanover family, Juno representing Catholicism and so on.

Where does that element of darkening come from that you’ve referred to – is that Congreve's addition to the story?

I think it’s Eccles, actually. The way he treats “Myself I shall adore”, for instance – it’s not the theatrical Viagra of the Handel setting at all. Eccles even goes against Congreve’s libretto instructions in intentionally setting it as a recit, and in general he makes Semele a very different character: not the over-sexed social climber she’s often portrayed as, but something much more nuanced. She starts out as a girl who doesn’t really know what she’s doing, and I find it fascinating that Eccles deliberately goes against Congreve in places in order to make her a more thoughtful and uncertain character. “Endless pleasure, endless love” at the end of Act I is relayed by an augur, one of the Theban officiators, who tells us about it at one remove – whereas in the Handel it’s her first-hand account. Eccles’s Semele is every bit as emotional as Handel’s, but it’s darker and more inward-looking, with more sense of the impending tragedy.

Anna Dennis (Semele), Richard Burkhard (Jupiter), Helen Charlston (Juno), Aoife Miskelly (Ino), William Wallace (Athamas), Héloïse Bernard (Iris), Academy of Ancient Music, Julian Perkins

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC