Those familiar with Handel’s Semele will be familiar with this 1718 zarzuela’s plot: Jupiter is in love with Semele; Juno, Jupiter’s wife, enlists Cupid (who is furious with the god for burning down his temple) and plots revenge. The end comes when Semele is convinced by Juno in disguise to experience Jupiter in all his glory; the god’s flames destroy her. In this work, there is a comic sub-plot involving the amours of a satyr, and another concerning Cadmus and Hydaspes. Since depth of involvement in plot isn’t really an issue here, the diversions are charming rather than problematic; the music for the minor characters clearly is more “popular” than that for the gods and Semele, whose music is Baroquely operatic and requires a certain virtuosity. (Well, actually, Semele is a speaking role, but the others have fine operatic turns.) There is spoken dialog from all the characters at one point or another, but never so much as to make the musical episodes seem disconnected.
This performance was taped live in Mallorca, and, some stage noises and not-always-perfect singing aside, it’s a pleasure from start to finish. In addition to the usual strings, there are prominent recorders, an oboe, a guitar, and castanets. Virginia Ardi acts well as Semele, perky and impetuous at first, very moving in her death scene. Marta Almajano, a soprano Jupiter, is excellent throughout, but she sings with particlar beauty and fine legato in her lament after Semele’s death. Both Lola Casariego and Soledad Cardoso, as Cupid and Juno, sing and act maliciously well and their many duets are high points. The others in the cast, including the one low voice, baritone Jordi Ricart as Cadmus and the Satyr, are fine.
Conductor Eduardo López Banzo adds the occasional piece of instrumental music by contemporary composers (two anonymous and one by Domenico Scarlatti) and Al Ayre Español plays gloriously, with verve, accuracy, and rhythmic punch. Antonio de Literes, previously unknown to me, is a fine composer, writing for instruments and voices with sophistication and an ear for sheer entertainment. This work is unique and recommended.