Ambition, Deceit and Eroticism -- Handel's Semele at the SCO
19 February 2005
A tale of everyday mortals and gods entranced a nearly full house at beleaguered Scottish Opera last night with the same clever mix of pathos, wit, drama and humour that has kept nations' favourite soaps at the top of the viewing and listening schedules for decades. And it was the visual elements as much as the vocal and musical that clinched the success of this premiere performance last night. Director John la Bouchardiere (of "The Full Monteverdi" fame) worked with a light touch that engagingly mixed some pretty unusual elements into a confection that finally had the audience calling its approval. Likewise, young Christian Curnyn on the podium brought his Early Opera Company experience and love of truly modern stagings of Handel to bear, and managed to persuade the SCO orchestra to eschew both vibrato and swooping lines without adding any extra period instrumentalists, save a harpsichord. Apart from a slightly unconvincing first 10 minutes (of more later) they played with increasing verve and apparent conviction throughout.
If ambition looms large in this story of poor, upwardly-mobile but slightly foolish, Semele then so does deceit and eroticism. The former was much in evidence from the outset -- and it was the director deceiving the audience for the first ten minutes or so, as the curtain rose on a most unexpected scene. I suppose that I, and most of the audience, were expecting some revelation of new production -- perhaps an elaborate period set, perhaps a weird and wonderful Germanic "concept" design, perhaps -- nothing? Well that's what we got at first -- nothing. Or rather, just a few boring lines of grey metal office chairs set out for a chorus in a dark grey non-set, with four single ones in front, obviously for the four characters who start proceedings -- King Cadmus, Prince Athamas, Semele, and sister Ino. I began to wonder if I was here under false pretences and was about to see a "semi-staged" version of this opera/oratorio. There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the house. And this was also the only time that I felt the orchestra was strangely detached from the drama, oddly jerky and with disconcerting moments of silence between some recitatives and arias or arioso.
But all became clear slowly -- very slowly -- as the pre-nuptial ceremonies commenced. The full chorus were in modern black gear, scores held out as in oratorio proper, and the four soloists also in sombre black modern dress and also clutching their music books for dear life began the formalities of Semele's forthcoming wedding to Prince Athamas. But, bit by bit, one noticed things not quite right, little glances, Semele looking more and more hunched and dejected, Athamas more and more puzzled, until at last the poor bride- to-be hurls herself away from the courtly protocol and declares herself for Love and Jove. Lisa Milne was in fine voice from the start with excellent diction and a nice touch in endearing silliness so necessary in explaining the subsequent action. Her soprano is rich and her coloratura assured and with breath to spare. Michael George was a resolute Cadmus (and later Somnus too) and his bass- baritone more than a match still for the orchestra below, although perhaps not as athletic as it once was. Athamas was sung by a countertenor new to me: Arnon Zlotnik. A tall, slender young man with an engaging if not particularly compelling stage presence who sang sweetly but without much dramatic power or expression as yet. As is the case often today, most of the role's original arias were cut and only one -- "Your Tuneful Voice" as he is "consoled" by Ino -- remained and was, sadly, somewhat lost in the singing. It requires a long legato line, heartfelt expressive despair and superb breath control to reveal the thing of beauty it really is. Best left to the likes of a David Daniels perhaps. Another experienced Handelian, Susan Bickley, lined up alongside Milne and George and took on the roles of both Ino and the vengeful Juno -- and very successfully pointed up the two so-different female characters by both vocal timbre and charming, and comical, expressivity. Her voice suffered a little from competition with the orchestra from time to time as she did not have the dynamic power of her fellow sopranos. The vocal "find" of the evening for me was young Kate Royal in the gift-role to actress-singers of Iris: PA to the Gods and generally inept fixer extraordinary. Hers is a strong, rich, and occasionally thrilling voice with huge potential, although at the expense of diction last night. Which leaves Jove, or Jupiter, himself: always a vocal pivot in this work and one of Handel's most interesting tenor roles when sung by an intelligent as well as highly competent singer. Both of which Jeremy Ovenden is, on this hearing. Since I last heard him, his voice seems to have grown in several ways and his line, power and coloratura were all excellent without ever going "out of style". Of course everyone was waiting for the "Big Song", and he despatched that most beautiful of Handelian love arias with both elegance and technical assurance, and we were transported to those Arcadian glades and saw those trees bow down with just an inflection of voice and a shift of light and shade. It was entrancing.
And that brings me to the most interesting aspect of this production: the light. Light as back-projected universe, light as mirror, light through a film lens and light as in defying gravity. This was the "Light Show Semele" I felt, and once we escaped the bleak opening scene, the full inventive skill of video artists, lighting designer, costumier and aerialists came into play. Yes, aerialists -- if this production had been presented a year or two earlier they could have advertised it as "direct from the Millennium Dome!" The first intimation of things of the air, rather than the earth, came when Jupiter -- in full elegant 18th Century kit -- doffed his hat in front of his beloved and it flew upwards and away into the heavens.... disconcerting for Semele as well as us. Another time "Iris" literally flew in to answer Juno's call for assistance -- cannily being replaced by Kate Royal at a vital moment in the wings. And why not? This was Up There, and the whole design seemed predicated on the contrast between the mortals' rather glum earth- bound existence and the floating, sun-kissed and gravity-defying world of the immortals. The best was left for the seduction of Somnus scene by scheming Juno: his besotted love for the nymph Pasiphae played upon by her teasing him with the sight of his heart's desire descending a rope, apparently completely naked although of course cleverly body-stockinged, and performing balletic aerial manoeuvres of a gentle eroticism that certainly woke the old duffer up and enabled the theft of his magical powers. Back projected images of the world spinning in the universe came and went at suitable moments, as did a wonderful piece of scenery: the floating pillow bed, refuge to Semele in moments of both ardour and despair. Looking rather like a huge inflatable dog bed, she either reposed on it, Lady Hamilton style, as it swung gently on near-invisible wires or it was used as prop when brought to earth for both Lisa Milne and Jeremy Ovenden to clamber over and on to. It also had the slightly discomfiting ability to move of its own accord across the stage -- one wondered for the safety of the singers if it ever got out of control -- which distracted one's attention from the music somewhat from time to time.
If there was a slight disappointment, it came at the end. After the visual delights of the earlier scenes, and a highly emotional death scene as Semele was pulled down into a dark opening breathing her last after Jupiter has carried out her fatal wish, (again cleverly achieved by effective mix of video and stage drama) I felt that the final redemptive, revelatory scene of Apollo's decree, and the birth of Bacchus from her ashes was rather short-changed and cursory. More could have been done I felt, and was left with a feeling that perhaps either the money or ideas had run out. But that is a minor grumble indeed, and not indicative of the effect of the whole.
The Glasgow audience was loud and long in its appreciation last night -- musical director Curnyn and stage director La Bouchardiere receiving much deserved plaudits for pulling off a delightful and, I hope, long-lived production that married so many theatrical elements very successfully. Don't let the words "multi-media" put you off seeing this most charming and elevated "Semele".