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19 Nov 2004

Handel's Semele at the ENO

Semele Robert Thicknesse at the Coliseum [Times Online, 20 November 2004] IT HAS to be the Prince of Wales's favourite opera. "Nature to each allots his proper sphere," avers Congreve's coolly brilliant libretto, and proceeds to itemise the results of...


Robert Thicknesse at the Coliseum [Times Online, 20 November 2004]

IT HAS to be the Prince of Wales's favourite opera. "Nature to each allots his proper sphere," avers Congreve's coolly brilliant libretto, and proceeds to itemise the results of getting above your station. (True, it also warns royals to be careful whom they sleep with.) This tale of Jupiter's incendiary affair with mortal Semele is a satire on celebrity, ambition and vanity that might have been written for the Big Brother generation.

And English National Opera's revival of Robert Carsen's production does it justice of a modern kind: gorgeous to look at and listen to, it is also rather shallow, a romp rather than a morality tale. It reserves its disapproval more for the drunken toffs who celebrate the birth of Bacchus from his mother's ashes (an entertainingly profane moment, welcoming this jovial son of god in a "Lenten oratorio") than for the "vain wretched fool" Semele, whose destruction is so easily fixed by Juno.

We are in a 1950s milieu of upper-crust debauchees in frocks to make the ladies gag with envy. The updating is more for visual effect than dramatic relevance, and it works wonderfully with its stark side-lighting, blessed use of the huge open stage and a welldirected chorus keeping things ticking over. And as well as beautiful images (Semele lying in bed in Heaven with Earth shining through the window, seen through a gauzy curtain) it is full of sight gags, character comedy and a theatrical intelligence to match the authors'.

Carolyn Sampson sings poor, silly Semele with beguiling facility, style and beauty, adding her own roulades to Handel's already extreme demands, pinpointing every note of the coloratura and doing it all with liquefying sexiness: slinking on to sing "Endless pleasure, endless love" as breathily as Marilyn cooing happy birthday to JFK, coyly baring all before slipping back into Jupiter's boudoir, tossing off an outburst of joyous vanity, hyperventing the hysteria of the mistress who's got above herself. This is a great performance.

It is well matched: Ian Bostridge's Jupiter gradually unbends to deliver the sweetest soft legato, Patricia Bardon's Juno is hilariously fiery as the (literally) queenly betrayed wife, and Janis Kelly camps Iris up something terrible.

After a languid start, Laurence Cummings, conducting, brings real Handelian sensibility and drama to the orchestra, and the chorus has a fine time undressing, drinking and indulging in some of Handel's loveliest music. A top evening, ENO right back on form, and the audience too.

Cast information:

Semele — Carolyn Sampson
Jupiter — Ian Bostridge
Ino — Anne-Marie Gibbons
Juno — Patricia Bardon
Athamas — Robin Blaze
Somnus — Graeme Danby
Cadmus — Iain Paterson
Iris — Janis Kelly

Click here for a synopsis of the opera.

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