Opera Scotland

Semele 1933Dundee Amateur Choral Union

Read more about the opera Semele

Much as its main arias were admired, Semele was very rarely staged, and not often performed even in concert, between the wars.

Jupiter's big aria, 'Where'er you walk' was, after all, standard fare in all school singing books well into the sixties, so that, at least, was familiar.  Perhaps the elegantly risqué text by Congreve put people off what was, after all, generally billed as an oratorio.  Here, a choir totalling 300, backed by the substantial forces of the Scottish Orchestra, gave a performance that was clearly enjoyable, though rather different in style compared to what would be acceptable today.

The wonderful Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie rarely sang in opera, but her sweet, silvery tone was perfectly suited to Handel's music, and she sang Messiah hundreds of times.  Semele must have made a pleasant change, and she clearly sang it beautifully.  Henry Wendon spent some of his career singing lyric roles with the Carl Rosa company, and he also seems to have given a stylish interpretation.

Details of the performance are from a review in the Dundee Courier and Advertiser.  This mentions only four soloists. Isobel Baillie is specified as singing the title role,  Wendon Jupiter, Stewart Juno, and Cranmer Somnus and 'various bass roles'.  It is usual for the alto cast as Juno to double as Ino (since she does impersonate that character at one point) while the bass generally sings both Cadmus and Somnus.  The reference to 'various bass roles' implies he may also have sung Athamas, as counter-tenors were not a familiar feature of 1930s musical life.  Just who sang Iris and Apollo is also to be confirmed, but they are not long roles and may have been voiced by the two leads, or perhaps by particularly proficient members of the choir.

Further research is needed.


Bach                 Cantata ‘O Light Everlasting’

Handel              Semele


Dundee Courier & Advertiser: Thursday 9 February 1933 (Library Cuttings p9)

Dundee Choral Union Triumph - Handel and Bach

'Shining examples of the choral morks of Handel and Bach, those two immortals, whose genius is rightly receiving more and more popularity in all parts of the country, were given last night by Dundee Amateur Choral Union in the Caird Hall.   A large audience heard a magnificent reading of Handel’s opera-oratorio Semele.  Done on a big and satisfying scale with an abundant chorus, excellent soloists, and the Scottish Orchestra, the performance of Semele was so good that it was apt to erase from the memory the grandeur of Bach’s cantata ‘O Light Everlasting.’

'The performance of the cantata was only of less stature at the end of the evening because it did not occupy more than the first half hour.   The choice of these two works was an admirable one, presenting to the listener an ever-widening aspect of the varied genius of their composers.

'The Union once more treated us to a brilliant display of choral singing.  Their remarkable work in the ‘Peace Be Unto Israel’ chorus in the Bach work, and in the Priests’ chorus, ‘Cease Your Vows,’ in Semele, will remain in the memory of many who were present last night.

'Mr Charles M Cowe, the conductor, is to be congratulated upon a splendidly virile reading of Semele, which presented the melodious Handel at his best.  Not only in his grip of choir and orchestra, but in a hundred details of polished musicianship he played the directorial part in a performance which must rank among the finest which the Choral Union has given.

'As instances, there was the delightfully crisp and quite dynamic singing in the Bach chorus already mentioned, the pace and rhythm of which were just right.  Also, there was vivid work in ‘Avert these omens, all ye powers,’ the Semele chorus.  The immense volume of tone obviously obtainable from the big chorus of over 300 voices never got out of hand – rather, it was made subservient to the needs of the moment.  Jubilant climaxes, so much beloved by Handel, were perfectly balanced.

'The four soloists were Miss Isobel Baillie (soprano),  Miss Catherine Stewart (contralto),  Mr Henry Wendon (tenor), And Mr Arthur Cranmer (bass), the singing of all of whom contributed to that feeling of musical satisfaction which the evening inspired.  The term ‘musical’ is used in the sense of musicianship, for it would have been difficult to select four singers more satisfying in that respect.

'Miss Isobel Baillie’s performance in the role of Semele in the Handel work confirmed a long-standing impression that in her we hear the art of oratorio singing brought very near to perfection.  Through the medium of her high soprano, used with an ease which would seem to belie the very existence of such a troublesome thing as technique, she lets the music she is singing carry its own appeal.  But the carefully acquired technique is unobtrusively present in her singing.  Everything is meticulously correct, down to the last detail of a run (and what a test for a singer are those enormous runs of old Handel).  Semele’s airs – ‘Oh, sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ and ‘No, no, I’ll take no less,’ were magnificently sung.

'The contralto, Miss Catherine Stewart, was as fine and vocally satisfying a Juno as Miss Baillie was a Semele.  Juno’s jealousies were portrayed by a sombre timbre in her voice which did away with any necessity for vocal dramatics of a more obvious order.  Herein lay the subtlety of Miss Stewart’s performance.  Her contralto is as uniformly produced and well-controlled an organ as has been heard in Dundee for many moons.  An intuition for the right inflection lent a character to all her work, which vied for interest with the pure beauty of her production.  She took honours with Juno’s air, ‘Hence, Iris, hence away,’ and in Juno’s compelling recitative duel with Semele in act three.  Previously she had given a lovely performance, ‘Rejoice, ye souls, elect and holy,’ in the Bach work.

'Mr Henry Wendon sang as Jupiter with a tenor voice of pleasant quality and a keen sense of musicianship.  His recitatives were made to rely on vocal beauty, and thus achieved an effect too often absent from recitative singing.  The famous tenor air, ‘Where’er you walk,’ was sung by Mr Wendon with a charming lyric method which allowed full concentration on its melodic beauty.

'Mr Arthur Cranmer’s delightfully resonant bass register and his sound musicianship gave him a rightful share in the excellence of the performance.  One admired the pointful care he put into his recitative under various bass roles.  His legato singing at the end of Somnus’ air, ‘Leave me, loathsome light,’ could hardly have been bettered.  In a few minutes more, in the second air of Somnus, ‘More sweet is that name,’ there was heard another side of Mr Cranmer’s equipment – resonant singing of runs in the bass register which made the performance of the air a distinguished one.

'The Scottish Orchestra responded at all times to Mr Cowe’s demands for light and shade.  The accompaniment was elastic, intelligent, and had some bewitching rhythmic qualities when the moment demanded. Mr Wm J Wallace was at the organ and Miss M Marshall Bird at the piano.'

Performance Cast

Cadmus King of Thebes

Arthur Cranmer

Semele daughter of Cadmus

Isobel Baillie

Ino sister of Semele

Catherine Stewart

Athamas a Prince of Boeotia

Arthur Cranmer


Catherine Stewart

Iris Juno's attendant

Isobel Baillie


Henry Wendon


Arthur Cranmer


Henry Wendon

Performance DatesSemele 1933

Map List

Caird Hall | Dundee

8 Feb, 19.30

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