Literes Jupiter y Semele
Al Ayre Español continue their rehabilitation of the Spanish Baroque with a persuasive recording of a zarzuela by the 18th-century composer Antonio de Líteres. Recorded live at a concert performance, this account of Júpiter y Semele, following the version reworked for performance in Lisbon in 1723 on the libretto by José de Cañizares after Ovid, is full of excellent music. Indeed, Líteres, whose opera-oratorio Los elementos was recorded by Al Ayre Español a few years ago (DHM 10/98), is an original and imaginative composer able to convey the gamut of human – or godly – emotion as deftly as Scarlatti or Handel. And this performance runs with each Affekt to great effect.
Immediacy of both compositional and interpretative approach is needed to bring off successfully a spoken-sung genre that will seem initially alien to 21st-century ears more attuned to through-composed opera. Conductor Eduardo Lopéz Banzo, has taken the wise decision to include some of the spoken dialogue for this zarzuela: indeed, he had little option given that the role of Semele was – and is here – taken by an actress. That a dialogue between a god, Jupiter, and a mortal should have taken place at two levels, sung and spoken, was a well-established part of Spanish theatrical tradition, as was the casting of female actress-singers in the main roles. In fact, only in the final exchange between Jupiter and Semele does the stop-start nature of the music seem rather strange to the modern listener, and even this has a dramatic dimension of its own.
Banzo keeps the pace moving with upbeat tempi and a strong rhythmic drive given a Spanish edge by the use of castanets in some choruses and the buffo scenes between a satyr and a miller’s daughter. Don’t be put off by the opening chorus in which the performers all seem to be trying too hard: once the admirable Marta Almajano’s Jupiter enters, everything moves on to another plane. She certainly has the best music, with a variety of arias from an evocation of nature in ‘Arroyuelo puro’ to the poignancy of the final lament, ‘¡O, cielos ingratos!’.
But there are also excellent duets for Juno (in the guise of of the sea-nymph Astrea) and Cupid as they plot revenge on Jupiter, and music for the comic foil is delightful. The actress Virginia Ardid as Semele delivers Cañizares’ at times rather stilted text well, though the smaller spoken roles, taken by the singers, are not always quite so convincing. There are plenty of noises off, mostly deliberate – Jupiter’s appearances are invariably accompanied by thunder – but overall this live recording is impressive for the balance and clarity achieved by Harmonia Mundi’s engineers.
I would love to see this work staged at, say, Drottningholm, with the setting and machinery appropriate to this retelling of the vicissitudes in the lives of gods and mortals: it certainly merits serious consideration for the quality of its music. Meanwhile, we can let our imaginations go with Al Ayre Español’s excellent recreation of 18th-century theatrical entertainment, Spanish style.