Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Cilea's L'arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

In a rank order of suicidal depressives, Federico - the Provençal peasant besotted with ‘the woman from Arles’, L’arlesiana, who yearns to break free from his mother’s claustrophobic grasp, who seeks solace from betrayal and disillusionment in the arms of a patient childhood sweetheart, but who is ultimately broken by deluded dreams and unrequited passion - would surely give many a Thomas Hardy protagonist a run for their money.

Prom 1: Karina Canellakis makes history on the opening night of the Proms 2019

The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Pavarotti: A Film by Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s latest music documentary after The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and Made in America is a poignant tribute that allows viewers into key moments of Pavarotti’s career – but lacks a deeper, more well-rounded view of the artist.

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

16 Nov 2018

Royal Academy's Semele offers 'endless pleasures'

Self-adoring ‘celebrities’ beware. That smart-phone which feeds your narcissism might just prove your nemesis.

Semele: Royal Academy of Music

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Fran Gregory (Juno), Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele) and Chorus

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

So suggests Olivia Fuchs, in her new production of Handel’s Semele for the Royal Academy of Music. King Cadmus of Thebes may proclaim ‘flashes of auspiciousness’ to the wedding guests awaiting the nuptials of his daughter Semele and Athamas Prince of Boethia at the Temple of Juno, when the Goddess accepts his sacrifice, but the guests’ celebratory chorus, ‘Lucky omens!’, proves deluded and short-lived.

Their mobile ’phones record every marriage-moment, Instagram-ready for public consumption, but Semele has her eyes on a higher prize: Jupiter. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but when one’s desires are a merely the reflection of a mirror, aspirations become warped. Not content with being worshipped by mere mortals, Semele desires immortality itself, but her dalliance with the deities seals her own destruction: death not by thunder-bolt but by flash-bulb.

Fuchs’s modern-dress production finds some neat parallels between the marital infidelities of the Ovidian myth; the fears of Handel’s contemporary public that King George II would make his mistress, Amalie von Wallmoden - whom he had set up with a title and large income - Queen of England; and modern-day celebrity-dom, a realm fuelled not by heavenly spheres but by a paradoxical and toxic mix of excess and emptiness. If she pillories those who, in a crisis of identity and authenticity, believe they are ‘stars’ through the seemingly hackneyed opera-trope of the snapping mobile ’phone, then that seems to be Fuchs’ point: the celebs, and the malleable masses, never learn. There’s little star-dust to be found in a life lived as a commodity: an image without substance, offered up for public consumption.

The simple and clear designs, by takis, cleverly elucidate the incompatibility of the earthly and the celestial, and the destruction that is unleashed when these realms interact. During the overture, the curtain lifts to reveal a rather inauspicious wedding venue: a dingy, subterranean ‘bunker’ where, amid the assorted wooden chairs that anticipate the guests’ arrival, the principals enact a mime which usefully outlines allegiances and motivations. If their gestures are sometimes reminiscent of the expressionism of 1920s’ silent cinema, then the hint of histrionics is apt. The guests’ black evening-wear proves fitting when Jupiter’s eagle sweeps Semele up to the stars and events take a more funereal turn.

Jupiter and Semele.jpgLina Dambrauskaite (Semele), Ryan Williams (Jupiter) and Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

An overhead light-box is lowered and, like a floating four-poster bed, wafts Semele upwards to Jove’s palace, where ‘endless pleasures, endless love’ await her. This Semele’s appetites, both material and carnal, prove insatiable: the chorus swap black for celestial silver and pander to her whims, while the enraged Juno-cum-Anna Wintour (a fine performance by Frances Gregory) plots her demise with her put-upon but willing PA, Iris. Lighting director Jake Wiltshire gives the star-spotted sky a glow of night-club pink and green, creating a palpable sense that the heavenly hedonism is going to come to an end with that metaphorical midnight-chime.

The young cast, the first of two, sang superbly on opening night. Even more impressively, they did so while accomplishing Fuchs’s busy stage directions. In the title role, Lina Dambrauskaitė skilfully showed how Semele’s solipsism grows, from sulky beginnings as she is reluctantly divested of her dressing gown and forced into a frothy gown, through sensuous self-indulgence when she subsequently sheds the candyfloss confection for a crimson silk camisole, to stubborn self-delusion as Jove’s acolytes fawn over and fondle her. Despite the dramatic distractions, Dambrauskaitė’s delivery of the coloratura was near faultless, peppered with some judiciously extravagant elaborations. Her tone was beautifully bright as she anticipated those ‘endless pleasures’, there was a delicious wryness about ‘Myself I do adore’ and few could surely deflect the determined, near-deranged, demands and desires which Dambrauskaitė threw at the hapless Jupiter in ‘No, no, I’ll take no less’.

Semele RAM principals.jpgThomas Bennett (Cadmus), Alexander Simpson (Athamas), Olivia Warburton (Ino,) Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele), and Chorus. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Ryan Williams did his best to sway his beloved though, and when the champagne, chocolates and flowers, helpfully supplied by Aimée Fisk’s Cupid, failed to win over the piqued and pouting Semele, it seemed for a moment that the sparkly Jimmy Choos might just do it. But, no. This Jupiter shaped his recitative wooing and worship elegantly, lovingly comforted in ‘Lay your doubts and fears aside’, beguiled with gentle lyricism in ‘Where’er you walk’, and warned his wilful woman with vocal punch and persuasiveness in ‘Ah, take heed what you press’. But, the beauties of Arcadia proved less appealing than the temptations of Semele’s own targets.

Olivia Warburton had impressed in the title role of Teseo at the London Handel Festival earlier this year, and here she made a strong impact as Semele’s sister, Ino, finding sadness and serenity in the role: her duet with Dambrauskaitė, when the sisters are briefly re-united in Jupiter’s paradisal gardens was one of the highlights. I’m not sure that her boogie-woogie wiggles to Athamus’s aria of acceptance, ‘Despair no more shall wound me’, sung with clarity and strong projection by Alexander Simpson, were entirely in character, but Warburton’s celebratory cartwheel was certainly impressive.

Thomas Bennett didn’t quite summon sufficient nobility of line as the distressed Cadmus, though his tone was warm; but his recalcitrant Somnus was strikingly sonorous despite his somnolence. Emilie Cavallo (Iris), Maya Colwell (Pasithea) and Joseph Buckmaster (Apollo) completed the fine line-up.

The Chorus were superb: their diction, strength, tone, co-ordination and choreography were all equally notable. The monumental terror and majesty of ‘O terror! and astonishment’ were terrifically emotive and powerful. I found the playing of the Royal Academy Sinfonia a little lacking in colour and character, though the lightness of the ensemble sound did make for some fleet runs. And, there was impressive virtuosity from individual players, especially from the bassoon player who underpinned Jupiter’s worried warning to ‘take heed’. The chamber organ was used to good effect.

At the close, Buckmaster’s Apollo, resplendent in purple suit and silver lame trainers, descended with a babe in his arms: the phoenix that arises from Semele’s ashes, the unborn child of mortal and god. But, despite the choral rejoicing, ‘Happy shall we be’, Athamus seemed disenchanted by Apollo’s reassurance that this baby Bacchus will be a god ‘more mighty than love’, taking umbrage at Ino’s apparent devotion to the new addition to their family and storming off in a jealous sulk, leading Ino to seek solace in father’s arms once more. So, this lieto fine was less than fortunate: disillusionment and disappointment, not dreams, will be your lot, Fuchs seems to say.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Semele

Semele - Lina Dambrauskaitė, Ino - Olivia Warburton, Cadmus/Somnus - Thomas Bennett, Athamas - Alexander Simpson, Jupiter - Ryan Williams, Juno - Frances Gregory, Iris - Emilie Cavallo, Cupid - Aimée Fisk, Apollo - Joseph Buckmaster, Pasithea - Maya Colwell; Director - Olivia Fuchs, Conductor - Laurence Cummings, Designer - takis, Lighting designer - Jake Wiltshire, Royal Academy Chorus and Sinfonia.

Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London; Wednesday 14 th November 2018.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):