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A Pretty Dreary Evening

By Jonathan Richmond

Music by Handel

Performed by Handel & Haydn Society

October 29 & 31, Symphony Hall

Handel’s Semele is a creation of brilliant colors and subtle orchestrations. Taking place in a dreamlike world, it concerns the ambitions and fate of a great lady whose vanity demands -- and obtains -- immortality. Meredith Hall as Semele was quite clearly the star of the night, and provided substantial pleasure to counteract what was otherwise a pretty dreary evening. Her entry, with the accompagnato, “Ah, Me!” drew us in with its wonderful lyricism, and Hall’s precise articulation and appreciation for complex coloration conveyed the essence of Handel. The drama of Semele’s infatuation with both Jupiter and herself unfolded in the beauty and expressive power of Hall’s voice, making it best to ignore the silly theatrical stage antics unnecessarily added as crowd-pleasers.

Mary Westbrooke-Geha certainly had a commanding presence and contributed bits of good singing. Theodora Hanslowe had her moments as well, most particularly in the soaringly beautiful duetto with Semele, “Prepare Then, Ye Immortal Choir.” Still, when singing solo, too much of Hanslowe’s expression was external to the music, oblivious to the music’s internal logic.

There is little positive to be said about the male singers. Mark Padmore’s Jupiter, in particular, was an awful drip. He should have been booed off the stage for his bored, empty rendition of the serene “Where’er You Walk,” although the snores coming from my right and stony silence from the audience at the conclusion of what should have been a high spot of the evening conveyed the message well enough. Philip Lima’s singing as Cadmus was at best nondescript. David Walker as Athamas attained adequacy during a number of measures, but was hardly gripping.

While the chorus was muddy as well as plodding for most of the evening, the performance’s principal displeasure came from an inadequately prepared orchestra, perhaps doing its best to play the notes but having no concept of the music. There were exceptions: in particular, the divine cello playing of Phoebe Carrai. Her work was at its most fantastical in “O Sleep, Why Does Thou Leave Me.”

But most of the orchestral playing was dull. Where were the fantastical colors that make Handel’s music live? Where were the idyllic interchanges of orchestral voices, the inspired balancing acts in sound that make this extraordinary music tell its dramatic tale? Where was the tempo beat that should convey the essence of human life?

They are lost in Christopher Hogwood’s evident contempt for his Boston audience. Yes, Hogwood can do magnificent work in the recording studio, but the distasteful mediocrity of his performance in Symphony Hall suggests that his main dream was of his paycheck and flight back to London. Having a big name really isn’t enough. The conductor must also be utterly involved in his work and available for sufficient rehearsal to communicate proper vision to chorus and orchestra. Hogwood has failed to bring anything of substance to Boston a sufficient number of times; therefore, I reach the conclusion that it is high time that the Handel & Haydn Society booted him out of town.