Cher Public

Herself you shall adore

From an early Mike Richter CD-ROM, “Odd Opera” comes this gem, a live performance of Handel’s Semele at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1985, the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Conductor: John Nelson
Semele: Kathleen Battle
Juno/Ino: Marilyn Horne
Jupiter: Rockwell Blake
Iris: Sylvia McNair
Cadmus/Somnus: Samuel Ramey
Athamas: Jeffrey Gall
Apollo: Walter MacNeil
Chief Priest of Juno: James Patterson
Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Gala Handel Opera Chorus

  • Wonderful. Can’t wait to hear this. I love Battle’s studio recording made several years later. But in 1985, she was at her zenith.

  • aulus agerius

    RB rocks. 1:30. No bleating.
    I also liked the KB recording a lot. I saw the nyco Lawless prod with Futral, Genaux, Breault et al. ‘Twas excellent.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      I’ve always thought the Battle studio recording was a mess. By that point her infamous problems with breath control (and her mounting need to slow everything down) stick out like a sore thumb. The arias feel completely cut together in the editing room. She takes all kinds of breaths that she doesn’t take in this live recording. For me, the two versions are the tale of her career. Luminous in the 80s, but the magic was gone by the 90s. At least when it came to truly challenging operating repertoire.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I have listened to the studio recording many times, at one point practically ALL the time. I think you massively over-state its short-comings. Yes, she is more impressive in this live performance, but she is nevertheless pretty wonderful in the studio set.

        I think her decline gets over-stated too. She may not have been as great in the 90s as she was in the 80s, but there was still plenty of magic in the voice and the singing when I saw her in, I think, 1998 or 1999 (eccentric and appalling though her behaviour was). I mention this because it is something of a Parterre trope that a singer gets all but dismissed as soon as she (it’s usually she) becomes not quite as good as she once was. A performance isn’t worthless just because it might have been better had it happened 10 years previously.

        As for these ‘infamous problems with breath control’ I’ve never heard anybody else mention them or noticed them myself. What I have noticed is that she is never apologetic about the need to breathe and always takes her own sweet time over it, refusing to be oppressed by the music -- something which makes her seem like a confident, in control performer to me (and an approach to breathing which she has in common with other greats like Freni, Callas and Caballe). Maybe it shows up more in baroque repertoire because of the extended melismas and the relative lack of flexibility in the tempi compared to romantic repertoire.

        • 98rsd

          The commercial recording took forever to be released because Battle wouldn’t approve the photo on the cover.

          On another topic here, Battle (in Ariadne) was not inaudible, just not loud enough to be satisfying. She murmured almost the entire role. “I could hear her” is not really the point.

        • OpinionatedNeophyte

          OK Cocky, but………

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            What are you trying to demonstrate with this? I’m afraid you’re going to have to use actual words.

            • OpinionatedNeophyte

              What Clita said. She sounds pretty terrible there. The voice still has many attractive qualities. Two years later I saw her in a concert with the Fort Worth sympnony. She sang the Exultate and a few Rossini arias and some absolutely spellbinding spirituals. But I stand by what she said. By the early 90s and certainly by the late 90s her voice could not sustain the challenging rep of her earlier years. I didn’t say she was washed up. But that Semele recording, both the studio and the 1995 version, powerfully indicate that.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              I don’t think she sounds terrible. I think she sounds less good than she did 10 years previously, which should surprise nobody.

          • Clita del Toro

            I am not a big Händel fan, nor do I know much about Battle’s career and singing; but, here, although she sings the aria pretty well, her voice seems worn out and unattractive.

  • Wow, what’s the story on Ramey einspringing for a much less well known colleague?

    • Near as I can make out, the cast listing, which I copied from Mike’s CD-ROM, is slightly in error. The character of “Somnus” does not appear in the first act. So, Semele fans, tell me: is the idea here that Ramey sings Cadmus in Act 1 then turns the part over to John Patterson in Act 3 while he (Sam) is busy singing Somnus? (Cadmus has only a couple of lines of recitative in that third act.)

      • armerjacquino

        It’s a standard doubling in the studio, isn’t it?

        • Okay, I’ve fixed the cast listing in the original posting. The two brief lines of recitative in Act 3 make just as much dramatic sense sung by the High Priest as by Cadmus, so in a concert performance at least the question is moot.

        • grimoaldo

          I think it must just be a mistake -- Somnus is only in once scene which Cadmus is not in so the same singer doing both parts would not create any conflict, especially in a concert performance.

          • grimoaldo

            “in *one* scene”

            • grimoaldo

              Oh,sorry, you resolved that already, did not notice before I posted.

          • The only time I saw Semele (in that overrated production set in a Chinese temple that every thinks is great), the same singer sang both Cadmus and Somnus throughout. It involved a costume change but I recall there being plenty of time in between Somnus’s scene (in Act 2?) and Cadmus’s return in the final act.

            • Krunoslav

              That was the worst production (dramatically) of SEMELE, or really of any Handel work I have ever seen at a major company.

    • turings

      Here’s the NYT review of the performance – doesn’t seem like anything unexpected happened :)

      The New York Times

      February 25, 1985, Monday, Late City Final Edition



      SECTION: Section C; Page 12, Column 3; Cultural Desk

      LENGTH: 751 words

      IT is difficult to imagine, in this Handel year, any event doing more honor to the composer than the spectacular performance of ”Semele” that took place on Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall. For admirers of Handel’s many-leveled art and the craft of singing, it was a night to mark down. For Kathleen Battle, who portrayed the self- adoring but adorable Semele, it had to be the performance of her young and still-blossoming career. She more than held her own on a stage filled with formidable Baroque stylists, prominent among them Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey.

      The production, part of the Handel Opera Series presented by Carnegie Hall in cooperation with Columbia Artists Management, went back to the original 1744 version, with vocal embellishments as realized by Randolph Mickelson. The orchestra included lutes and harpsichords. Performers were deployed as at the Covent Garden premiere, with timpani and horns on risers at the highest level and the other instruments and singers fanning out beneath. This bit of authenticity tended to give more prominence to the louder instruments than they needed, but John Nelson’s conducting kept matters in balance.

      The story is an amusing but pathetic one. It tells how the fair Semele falls in love with Jove, who courts her as Jupiter in the guise of a mortal. She is one of those classical ladies like Euridice who cannot leave well enough alone and must test their lovers to the limit. When she demands immortal status equal to Jove’s own, he is forced to teach the girl her place by scorching her with one of his lightning bolts, sending her off to the next world. Jove’s wife, Juno, in the person of Miss Horne, played the villain’s role in all this.

      Miss Horne, the coloratura-mezzo who must be considered the cornerstone of the current Handel revival, set off vocal Roman candles in her usual fashion, naturally. She has taught us to take her brilliant feats almost for granted. However, Miss Battle, despite her rapid rise in esteem in recent seasons, is a comparatively new Handelian to us. She kept the audience in a state of delirium with her flawless, perfectly pitched runs, the precision and ease of her leaps and tricky intervals, the sensuous curve of her phrases, the pathos and delicacy of her reading of the text. Such florid arias as ”Myself I shall adore” and ”No, no! I’ll take no less” could be singled out, but Miss Battle was no less captivating in the softer sentiments of ”With fond desiring” and ”O sleep, why dost thou leave me?”

      ”O sleep” is one of several famous numbers that were just about all the general musical public knew of ”Semele” until recent years. Another is Juno’s sharply contrasting ”Hence, hence, Iris, hence away,” the aria that immediately preceeds it. Miss Horne delivered this parody piece brilliantly and humorously in the opera seria manner of one of those unhappy contraltos immortalized by Gilbert and Sullivan. Another familiar number, ”Where’er you walk,” one of the glories of Handel recording history in John McCormack’s rendition, received respectable treatment from Rockwell Blake, the evening’s Jove and/or Jupiter, even though Mr. Blake’s tone tended to be monochromatic and his interpretation a bit too strenuous.

      Mr. Ramey, doubling as King Cadmus and the ”dull god” Somnus, caught both the noble attitude of the one and the sleepy humor of the other. He provided some of the night’s wittiest moments with his somnolent ”Leave me loathsome light” and its more alert follow-up, ”More sweet is that name.”

      The other male roles, Athamas (the countertenor Jeffrey Gall) and Apollo (the tenor Walter MacNeil) were competently sung, though Athamas was more remarkable for getting over technical hurdles than expressing much of interest musically. Sylvia McNair, a soprano we hear too seldom hereabouts, made a blithe, silvery-toned Iris, and James Patterson delivered the Chief Priest’s recitatives in a stentorian bass that plunged to a low E at the end of his first number. Mr. Patterson did not merely reach the subterranean note, he boomed it out.

      The Cast

      SEMELE, opera in three acts by George Frederick Handel; libretto by William Congreve. John Nelson, conductor; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Gala Handel Opera Chorus. At Carnegie Hall. Semele Kathleen Battle, Juno/Ino Marilyn Horne, Jupiter Rockwell Blake, Cadmus/Somnus Samuel Ramey, Athamas Jeffrey Gall, Apollo Walter MacNeil, Iris Sylvia McNair, Chief Priest of Juno James Patterson

  • aulus agerius

    Jackie rocks! 1:00. What a hoot -- and no hooting!!

  • aulus agerius

    O ecstasy of happiness! 2:00 makes me laugh out loud -- and not in derision. :-)
    Thanks,LC, for a big uplift.

  • operaassport

    Kathleen Battle, finally a soprano we can disdain more than Renee Fleming :)

  • Grane

    I still love her and Flicka’s Carnegie Hall Christmas special--especially the big red dress that wore her.

    • operaassport

      Von Stade couldn’t get within 10 feet of those big red sleeves. It was hilarious.

      • PetertheModest

        Here it is:

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    I have long cherished this pirate recording. And on YouTube someone has posted Battle’s arias with even less audio distortion and all the applause. Henahan’s review is spot on, the audience was delirious. So when people say “I couldn’t hear her” I’m like….OK so how did everyone else?

    • Charges of inaudibility around here mean absolutely nothing. It usually means “Singer X had a slightly smaller voice than others onstage and I don’t like her.”

      • armerjacquino

        Perfectly put.

        In nearly 30 years of operagoing, I’ve never come across a singer I was unable to hear. I guess there’s a lot of selective deafness around.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          I hadn’t come across an ‘inaudible’ singer until very recently. Inaudible is over-stating of course, but I did have real difficulty hearing Haroutounian in Vepres in the bottom octave and a half of her voice unless she was unaccompanied.

          Battle I could hear just fine, and that was towards the end of her active career.

          • la vociaccia

            I saw Kate Royal a month ago and she was just about inaudible when the orchestra kicked in. On recordings she sounds interesting, but live, at least in a big hall, the timbre really evaporated and it was all noise. I was sort of shocked, to be honest, considering her big recording contract. It seemed like a very unremarkable voice live

            • MontyNostry

              I wonder how Royal is going to do as a much-loved Viennese aristocrat this summer …

            • la vociaccia

              Have you heard her live, Monty? I was truly shocked at the quality of her instrument; really really below average.

            • MontyNostry

              Once, in a recital at Wigmore Hall about 6 or 7 years ago. I just thought she was a bit dull. The voice can sound quite beautiful on recordings, and of course she looks good, but she’s not a singer I’d go out of my way to hear.

            • Hippolyte

              To tie numerous threads together, Royal is married to Julian Ovenden who portrays one of Lady Mary’s suitors in the utterly dreary season 4 of “Downton Abbey.” Her other suitor is played by Tom Cullen who is superb in “Weekend” which I think is one of best gay films.

          • Well, ok. Nathan Gunn’s voice genuinely got lost in ensembles in Comte Ory, but that’s a slightly different thing. (That was such a delightful revival, I have to say. I wasn’t expecting much but I had a fine time.)

        • Krunoslav

          I couldn’t hear--really- Ileana Cotrubas as Ilia or Violetta from the penultimate row of the Met Family Circle. I had greatly enjoyed her Gilda, which I heard from my parents’ excellent orchestra seats. When the IDOMENEO cast changed and Benita Valente took over Ilia I had no trouble whatsoever hearing her small but very well-focused voice.

          The Elettra of these performances was all too audible. Oy!

          • armerjacquino

            I guess the Met is twice the size, but on the two occasions I saw Cotrubas- from my usual spot at the back of the amphitheatre- her Tatyana and Violetta were perfectly audible (and both wonderful, too).

            I wonder if she was just going through a rough patch when you heard her (or didn’t)? The acoustic in Fam Circ is so good, as well.

            • Krunoslav

              I think her rough patch was the 1980s! the voice just seemed ( at least in a large space) to lose any ring.

              I never had trouble hearing Battle at the Met, but I did hear a recital in Seattle maybe 10 years ago at which she breathed BETWEEN EVERY WORD.

        • kennedet

          Why is there never any discussion about the conductor when we discuss a singer’s not being heard? Isn’t it the conductor’s responsibility to balance the orchestra with the singer. Isn’t the problem of balance supposed to be dealt with at dress rehearsals? Why is the onus always on the singer? Most of the famous singers don’t own gigantic volumes like Pavarotti and Norman.

          I heard Upshaw sing the Knoxville songs by Barber and the following evening they had a microphone in front of her. She was standing beside the conductor on stage with the orchestra. It is the conductor’s job to control the orchestra’s balance and even though he/she is not in the audience it is their responsibility. My God! have someone go out in the audience and ask if the balance is suitable. Von Karajan did wonderful balancing with Battle during a concert. She could not be heard in the beginning of her selection and he fixed the problem immediately. He just cued the orchestra to play softer. It’s not rocket science!

  • Opera Teen

    Am I the only person who hears “Happy Birthday” at the beginning of the recording?

    • I heard it too, but thought it was noise from someone near me here at LAX.

      • m. p. arazza

        Wasn’t this, actually, the concert (and broadcast) that began with a guy in the audience bellowing “I want a libretto and a program!” (with other cries following in response)? God, the things one remembers (or thinks one does) after thirty years.

        • m. p. arazza

          (Plus, more to the point, it was Handel’s birthday.)

        • almavivante

          Yes, it was, and I was there, in the balcony. They hadn’t brought upstairs enough programs and this guy lost his temper (and for good reason, too--as I recall, the tickets weren’t cheap even in the balcony). They brought him one double-quick. I got mine at intermission, but only because I’m a lady about such things and didn’t raise a ruckus. (By the way, m.p., nice nom de plume.)

    • No, you aren’t. The demand for a program and libretto mentioned by m. p. arazza was followed by a few other shouts and shushes. Then, when everyone was more or less quieted down, and just before John Nelson gave the downbeat for the overture, an eccentric member of the cher public decided it was the perfect time to sing “Happy Birthday” to Handel. Mr. Nelson did not follow her cue and no one joined her, but she achieved a sort of immortality as part of the recording with her birthday offering interruptus.

  • JackJack

    It’s just a fact that Battle sounds great here.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      Well Jack Jack, when it comes to Battle, many Parterrians put a slight twist on that old adage; believing that if you have nothing mean to say, say nothing at all.

    • CwbyLA

      Completely agreed JackJack. She is fantastic. I think the whole performance is amazing.

  • Krunoslav

    Jeffrey Gall was phenomenal in his final “Despair no more”-- more applause than Battle got for “No no I’ll take no less”--which sealed his fate as far as appearing on the studio set was concerned.

    here: 2:51.55

  • La Valkyrietta

    In February 23, 1985, I was not even in New York City, I hate to say, Carnegie Hall was the place to be on that day. Divine.

  • danpatter

    This was a great way to spend the morning, listening to this splendid performance from nearly three decades ago. Yes, it is in some ways better than the commercial recording made five years later. Thanks so much for posting this. “Odd Operas” is a Richter CD-ROM I don’t have. What other goodies are on it, I wonder?

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    Significantly “cleaner” audio of Battle’s arias. I wonder if this YouTube poster has the whole thing….

  • Marcello

    Next week is Horne’s 80th birthday!

  • No Expert

    I do like Battle as Semele. But my sister took me to see Sills’ Semele with the Cleveland Orchestra when I was jut a kid, and I will never, ever forget it.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      Who can blame you.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        Sills whole Semele is on Youtube. Holy shit, she basically re-writes Myself I Shall Adore. Its both too much and *everything!* all at once.