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

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

The Maryland Opera Studio Defies Genre with Fascinating Double-Bill

This past weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presented a double-billed performance of two of Kurt Weill’s less familiar staged works: Zaubernacht (1922) and Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927).

Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The Nash Ensemble’s annual contemporary music showcase focused on the work of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a composer with whom the group has enjoyed a long and close association. Three of the six works by Birtwistle performed here were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, as was Elliott Carter’s Mosaic which, alongside Oliver Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon, completed a programme was intimate and intricate, somehow both elusive in spirit and richly communicative.

McVicar's Faust returns to the ROH

To lose one Marguerite may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But, with the ROH Gounod’s Faust seemingly heading for ruin, salvation came in the form of an eleventh-hour arrival of a redeeming ‘angel’.

A superb Semele from the English Concert at the Barbican Hall

It’s good to aim high … but be careful what you wish for. Clichéd idioms perhaps, but also wise words which Semele would have been wise to heed.

A performance of Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante by Arcangelo

In 1726 on 25 August, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy, the new French ambassador to the Venetian Republic held a celebration for the name day of King Louis XV of France. There was a new piece of music performed in the loggia at the foot of Languet's garden with an audience of diplomats and, watching from gondolas, Venetian nobles.

Matthew Rose and Tom Poster at Wigmore Hall

An interesting and thoughtfully-composed programme this, presented at Wigmore Hall by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Tom Poster, and one in which music for solo piano ensured that the diverse programme cohered.

Ekaterina Semenchuk sings Glinka and Tchaikovsky

To the Wigmore Hall for an evening of magnificently old-school vocal performance from Ekaterina Semenchuk. It was very much her evening, rather than that of her pianist, Semyon Skigin, though he had his moments, especially earlier on.

Hubert Parry's Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

Caravaggio’s depiction (1598-99) of the climactic moment when the young, beautiful, physically weak Judith seizes the head of Holofernes by the enemy general’s hair and, flinching with distaste, cleaves the neck of the occupying Assyrian with his own sword, evokes Holofernes’ terror with visceral precision - eyes and screaming mouth are wide open - and is shockingly theatrical, the starkly lit figures embraced by blackness.

La Pietà in Rome

Say "La Pietà" and you think immediately of Michelangelo’s Rome Pietà. Just now Roman Oscar-winning film composer Nicola Piovani has asked us to contemplate two additional Pietà’s in Rome, a mother whose son is dead by overdose, and a mother whose son starved to death.

Matthias Goerne: Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 & Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes: Robert Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 and Kernerlieder. Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing.

Orfeo ed Euridice in Rome

No wrecked motorcycle (director Harry Kupfer’s 1987 Berlin Orfeo), no wrecked Citroen and black hearse (David Alagna’s 2008 Montpellier Orfée [yes! tenorissimo Roberto Alagna was the Orfée]), no famed ballet company (the Joffrey Ballet) starring in L.A. Opera’s 2018 Orpheus and Eurydice).

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel - a world premiere at English National Opera

Jack the Ripper is as luridly fascinating today as he was over a century ago, so it was no doubt sensationalist of the marketing department of English National Opera to put the Victorian serial killer’s name first and the true subject of Iain Bell’s new opera - his victims, the women of Whitechapel - as something of an after-thought. Font size matters, especially if it’s to sell tickets.

Tosca at the Met


The 1917 Met Tosca production hung around for 50 years, bested by the 1925 San Francisco Opera production that lived to the ripe old age of 92.  The current Met production is just 2 years old but has the feel of something that can live forever.

Drama Queens and Divas at the ROH: Handel's Berenice

A war ‘between love and politics’: so librettist Antonio Salvi summarised the conflict at the heart of Handel’s 1737 opera, Berenice. Well, we’ve had a surfeit of warring politics of late, but there’s been little love lost between opposing factions, and the laughs that director Adele Thomas and her team supply in this satirical and spicy production at the ROH’s stunningly re-designed Linbury Theatre have been in severely short supply.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the Royal Festival Hall

A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas.

Samson et Dalila at the Met


It was the final performance of the premiere season of Darko Tresnjak’s production of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Four tenors later. 

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):