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<em>Semele</em>, Garsington Opera
03 Jun 2017

Semele: star-dust and sparkle at Garsington Opera

To open the 2017 season at Garsington Opera, director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw offer a visually beautifully new production of Handel's Semele in which comic ribaldry and celestial feuding converge and are transfigured into star-dust.

Semele, Garsington Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Christine Rice (Juno), Heiei Stober (Semele), Jurgita Adamonyte (Ino)

Photo credit: Johan Persson


Derived from Euripides and Ovid, Semele relates the Greek myth of the eponymous princess, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, who prefers Jupiter - Jove, in his mortal form - to her betrothed, Athamas, Prince of Boethia, who is in turn loved by Semele’s sister, Ino. Semele craves more than simply a dalliance with a god, however; she wants immortality. Her judgement clouded by ambition, she is tricked by Jove’s vengeful wife Juno into demanding that Jupiter make love to her in his immortal form, thereby sealing her own destruction.

When Handel’s and William Congreve’s ‘secular oratorio’ was first seen 1744, the composer’s regular librettist Charles Jenners condemned it as ‘a bawdy opera’, and the contemporary London public were disconcerted by the risqué insinuations of the text - English, not the expected Italian - and frequent dramatic incursions by the chorus which broke with the da capo conventions of opera seria.

But, ever the man of the theatre, the politically astute Handel knew what he was doing. Congreve’s text had been written thirty years earlier for John Eccles, but the work had been withdrawn, throwing as it did rather too acute a light national anxiety over the succession in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By the 1740s, the political context had changed. After the death of his wife, King George II had set up one of his many mistress, Amalie von Wallmoden, with a title and large income, and the public feared that she might become Queen. Moreover, the nation was still troubled by the threat of a Jacobite Revolution. This latter danger was embodied by the dissolute figure of Charles Edward Stuart - the young pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie - whose religious leniency and sexual licentiousness were lamented in equal measure by the dour Hanoverians, who surely found anti-Jacobite resonances in Handel’s portrayal of Jupiter.

Handel’s tale of human ambition and marital infidelity among the immortals is thus a heady mix of sex and power which, at the time, shone a satirical spotlight on both national and theatrical politics. But, as Miskimmon and Shaw recognise, it’s a passionate brew that is no less relevant today, as the soap operas that play out on both the television screen and the political stage confirm. Handel stirs sensuousness into the satire and, if she does not quite always control the balance between triviality and tragedy, then Miskimmon offers both playfulness and pathos, potently illuminating the perils of jealousy, self-love and ‘vaulting ambition’.

Miskimmon presents a busy mime during the overture as high-society guests in fashionable modern dress gather for the wedding of Semele (Heidi Stober) and Athamas (Christoper Ainslie) in a plush civil hall - royal-blue curtains, an outsize red heart, golden chandeliers and towering cake - while Llio Evans’ Iris, the messenger of the gods (part stage-manager, part Shakespeare’s Ariel), runs a tech check and takes position atop the heart to watch the nuptials unfold. But, as the edgy rhythms and nervous motivic interplay strike up in the pit, so the jealous Juno - tired out by pregnancy and her husband’s infidelity, pushing a double-buggy and surrounded by her pink-clad brood - appears, to remind us that drastic divine intervention is imminent.

That’s when the fun starts. As Semele is dragged to the altar by Cadmus (David Soar) and urged by the chorus to bring peace and luck to the nation through this auspicious wedlock, Jupiter (Robert Murray) saunters around the anxious guests, drawing nonchalantly on a cigarette. When Semele calls upon the deity for guidance, he short-circuits the chandeliers, shatters the heart of roses and blows up the wedding cake. The drapes are drawn back to reveal the planetary paradise whence Semele is whisked by a crew of celestial flight attendants, their berets capped with golden wings. Ensconced in Jupiter’s lunar love-nest, she is stripped of her earthly wedding frock and dressed in the silvery beams of stars and moons - or, more prosaically in lamé cloaks and cat-suits.

Heidi Stober (Semele) with Garsington Opera Chorus credit Johan Persson.jpg Heidi Stober (Semele) with Garsington Opera Chorus. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Shaw makes the most of the wide Garsington stage and presents us with a night-blue observatory panorama of pendulous orbs amid zodiacal light and nebulae. The splintered chandeliers are replaced by gleaming globes. It’s a hypnotically beautiful vista, and as the real night descends around the Garsington pavilion one can almost hear the cosmic harmony. When the globes lower, to nestle around the sleeping Semele, she looks like Tytania amid her faery bower of magic lanterns.

However, despite the air of enchantment there’s mischief afoot, in the form of the wrathful Juno (Christine Rice) who, with childbirth imminent, impatiently - and hilariously - grabs the gas and air from her inattentive nurse, David Soar’s drowsy Somnus. The latter also proves reluctant to join in the plan to destroy Semele, until the scheming Juno bewitches his duvet into an erotic bedpartner and promises him the love of the nymph Pasithea. Disguised as Ino, Juno convinces Semele to demand that Jupiter comes to her in his immortal form. As Stober’s Semele poses and preens - ‘Myself I shall adore,/ If I persist in gazing./ No object sure before/ Was ever half so pleasing’ - framed within a wonky light-bulb rimmed heart, the message to selfie-snappers and narcissistic Instagrammers is clear.

Llio Evans (Iris), Christine Rice (Juno) & David Soar (Somnus) credit Johan Persson.jpg Llio Evans (Iris), Christine Rice (Juno), David Soar (Somnus) Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Bewitched by Somnus, Jupiter is unable to deny her request and removes his mortal form’s leather gloves; when the inevitable thunderbolt flashes, Semele becomes a luminous astronomical body. But, despite her overweening egoism, the image created by Shaw and lighting designer Mark Jonathan of her progress towards the heavens, reflected in a huge mirror-orb, creates genuine pathos. She climbs into her cosmic coffin and the Chorus returns, the wedding guests now mourners at Semele’s funeral, their candles of remembrance placed in a stellar formation of flames over which her ashes - like interstellar dust - are scattered.

Back on earth, happiness is being restored. Hermes has come to Ino in a vision, revealing her sister’s fate and Jupiter’s wish that Ino marry Athamas. He seems happy to oblige. Apollo appears to announce that a new god will rise from Semele’s ashes: cue the arrival of a golden cherub, Bacchus - in a neat touch, played by Stober’s cute young son - who is snatched up by the be-winged, gold-suited Jupiter, to the fury and despair of Juno who departs, presumably to plot her next act of retaliation.

It is the choruses that betray the work’s ‘oratorio’ origins and Miskimmon’s direction of the twenty-eight-voiced Garsington Opera Chorus is superb: precise, detailed, imaginative, credible. The choreography and timing is perfect: even Juno’s children - a veritable clan of van Trapps - collect up the shining orbs with flawless exactness. And, the Chorus are in tremendous voice. They almost steal the show.

Not quite, though. For me, that accolade goes to Christine Rice who, piercing Juno’s nails into Iris’s palm as her coloratura roulades attest to her suffering, uses every inch of her wide range to convey the goddess’s fury. Hearing her low notes burn one could not doubt her scorching spite and resentment. Rice’s Juno is both terrifying and comic, and her flashes of vocal fire are the equal of her husband’s lightning strikes.

In the title role, American soprano Heidi Stober captures of all of Semele’s headstrong ambition and solipsism, but the sensuousness of her phrasing and the amber glow which swathes her soprano from bottom to top makes the wilful princess an absolutely mesmerising minx. She has the breath control and agility to tackle the virtuoso arias with confidence, but each one is individually characterised. Her achievement is all the more noteworthy given that Stober twisted her knee during Act 2; one would never have known, so physically and vocally lively and engaged was she.

Heidi Stober (Semele) with Robert Murray (Jupiter) credit Johan Persson.jpg Heidi Stober (Semele) and Robert Murray (Jupiter). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Handel’s characterisation of Jupiter is unusual, for there is little imperiousness and majesty. Robert Murray’s easeful, sweet tender was perfect for the opera’s ‘greatest hit’, ‘Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glades’ - an attempt to beguile Semele to distract her from her demands for immortality. Murray moved from the amusingly futile hope that his ‘softest thunder’ and ‘most melting bolt’ might do least harm to his beloved, to a love song of great tenderness. As the petals fell on his prone darling, poetic artifice and sincere devotion were fused. In contrast, ‘Ah! take heed’ rang with thrillingly with dread.

Doubling up as the authoritative Cadmus and slapstick Somnus, David Soar showed his dramatic range. His bass had terrific power and resonance; and, like all the cast and chorus, his diction was superb - for once, surtitles were genuinely redundant.

Ino’s Act 1 aria, in which she pleads with the rejected Athamas to turn his sad eyes in her direction, was expressively sung by mezzo soprano Jurgita Adamonytė, and beautifully accompanied by Ashok Gupta (organ) and Jane Fenton (cello). During the aria, the Chorus removed the chairs set out for the aborted nuptials and, typically of the care and precision executed throughout, for once action in the background did not distract at all from the expressive focus established by Adamonytė.

I was not entirely convinced by the relationship between Ino and Christopher Ainslie’s Athamus, but perhaps one is not meant to be. Ainslie has a fairly soft-grained countertenor, and Athamas’ first aria of passion, ‘Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare’ did not project with the requisite weight, though it was technically accomplished and stylishly phrased.

In the minor roles, Welsh soprano Llio Evans sang with strong character as Iris, while Christian Valle was a stentorian Priest, overseeing the marriage ceremony. Mikael Onelius’s Apollo was a potent soothsayer. Conductor Jonathan Cohen drew vibrant playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra.

‘Endless pleasure, endless love’, Semele enjoys in her celestial boudoir. This witty, winning production allows us to share in her delight.

Claire Seymour

Semele will be performed on 1, 3, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30 June and 4 July:

Free screenings will be shown on 1 July (Skegness & Oxford), 22 July (Ramsgate), 29 July (Bridgwater), 15 October (Grimsby):

Handel: Semele

Semele - Heidi Stober, Jupiter - Robert Murray, Juno - Christine Rice, Cadmus & Somnus - David Soar, Athamas - Christopher Ainslie, Iris - Llio Evans, Ino - Jurgita Adamonytė, Apollo - Mikael Onelius, High Priest - Christian Valle; Director - Annilese Miskimmon, Conductor - Jonathan Cohen, Designer - Nicky Shaw, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Movement Director - Sarah Fahie.

Garsington Opera, Thursday 1 June 2017.

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