An unlikely but adept English-language vocal stylist, Cecilia Bartoli, led the cast of a revival of the 2007 Zurich staging of Handel’s Semele, transferred to the Theater an der Wien for a short run. Director Robert Carsen takes an occasional liberty: Juno and Jupiter emerge as British royals, for instance, she a wellie-wearer and devotee of the low tabloids. Yet disbelief is gladly suspended, and kept there, a rare credit these days.
At the opening Thursday night, Les Arts Florissants rendered the orchestral score in supple detail and with broad tonal wealth, earning a sustained ovation. William Christie, full of vigor, must have relished the chance to lead his own players, as he could not in Zurich. Pit-and-stage coordination signaled confidence, both ways.
Charles Workman delivered the Prince Albert-like god with finesse, dropping oddly, emotively, to a mezza voce for half of his infinite-gift aria, “Where e’er you walk.” Birgit Remmert’s alto no longer projects evenly through its range, yet she retains her bottom and milked the role of Juno with queenly aplomb, musical and dramatic.
Bartoli ‘s “Myself I shall adore” placed textual emphasis on its second line, “If I persist in gazing,” with Remmert, now as Ino, itching risibly to snatch back the mirror: in a tale of ambition, this Semele would fall to her fate seemingly by mishap, not so much by scheming.
Bartoli in 2007 Zurich performance of Semele
Head and chest voice sounded warmly integrated, versus 20 years ago, notably in Act One. Fireworks, late in the evening, found agility and power, though with slight slowing in the lethal demand aria, “No, no, I’ll take no less,” abetted by Christie, perhaps for effect. Here Congreve’s story turns ugly, and Bartoli rose to a concomitant smoldering anger — in clear English and at generally breakneck tempos.
The four supporting roles were stylishly taken. Over the hum of air conditioning, and despite dull diction from the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, it was gratifying to watch and hear a 1743 London work seduce everyone in Beethoven’s small house.