Júpiter y Semele
Antonio de Literes (1673-1747) is perhaps the most distinctive voice of the Spanish Baroque; and although this impressive zarzuela is only attributed to him, all internal evidence points to it being his work. Written like Acis y Galatea and Los Elementos to a text by José de Cañizares, Júpiter y Semele had the first of several productions on May 9, 1718 at Madrid's Teatro de la Cruz, predating Handel's English opera Semele (never, pace Cristina Diego Pacheco's otherwise impeccable notes, thought of as an oratorio) by twenty-six years.
Júpiter y Semele may not rival what is after all one of Handel's supreme masterpieces, but then it does not aim at the same mark. Where Handel, greatest of Enlightenment music-dramatists, presents an operatic range of situations and raw emotions triggered by love and desire, Literes is more distanced, fashioning a sophisticated mix of high allegory and low comedy. Spoken dialogue alternates with sung numbers, ranging from operatic recits and da capo arias down to comedy dúos al español in the fast-moving manner of the baroque zarzuela. The scores variety is a delight, not least for the energised choral epigrams which frame several of the scenes.
Character and psychology are not Literes' prime concerns; but Semele herself - unusually - is a speaking role, and in this atmospheric and urgent live concert recording (made this February in Literes native Mallorca) Virginia Ardid is able to bring an actor's subtlety and power to her scenes with Jupiter. This makes for some unusual effects - notably at the catastrophe, where Semele is incinerated by embracing (as she herself has demanded) the God in his true fiery form. The alternation of sung and spoken strophes for the two protagonists makes for gripping drama. Rarely can even Marta Almajano have given such a towering performance as she does here, and Jupiter's poised lament after Semele's death is, fittingly, the musical highpoint of the performance.
It's tricked out with instrumental additions from contemporary sources, and suitable helpings of dialogue. There are good notes as well as Cañizares' elegant Spanish original text, usefully translated into French and German as well as ... though I'm not sure English is quite the right word for Mark Owen's rendition, which makes very little sense and contains a host of howlers. It's time he upgraded his translation software or monitored the results more carefully. The whole is most attractively packaged by Harmonia Mundi, and altogether Júpiter y Semele is easily the most vivid recording to date of any baroque zarzuela.
© Christopher Webber 2003