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Handel Semele Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Laurence Cummings, 18th November, 2004 (CC)


Semele is a result of Handel’s tinkering with oratorio from around 1740. ‘Performed after the manner of an oratorio,’ Semele was composed in 1743 and is a richly dramatic work that for the most part wears its length lightly. It helps that ENO chose to stage imaginatively, with superb lighting effects and good use of available stage space. After the recent Don Giovanni, a ‘sex sells’ approach should surprise only a few, and indeed the nookie-laden second act (that struck me as musically rather verbose) furnished the audience with plenty to watch. Ian Bostridge, as Jupiter, King of the Gods, certainly had a hands-on part. The text, by William Congreve, is a mix of wit and almost-wisdom. ‘Wheree’er you walk’ is probably the most famous moment of the evening.

 

 

 


The story concerns the titular heroine’s love for the god Jupiter, despite being due to marry Athamas, Prince of Boeotia. To complicate things, Semele’s sister, Ino, is herself in love with Athamas. Semele is abducted by an eagle (Jupiter) in the nick of time and in Act II is seen frolicking (and how) with her new man (read god). Semele wants to elevate her human status, and it is Juno (Jupiter’s wife, appearing as Ino) who sets a trap for Semele. Jupiter must make love to Semele in his true divine form. Accordingly Semele demands this, the seed of her own destruction. Her end is inevitable (albeit fairly long in the coming).


Laurence Cummings’ conducting was exemplary. Head of Historical performance at the Royal Academy of Music, his credentials were immediately established in a marvellously pointed overture. His ability to follow and carry singers was on display throughout, and recitatives were splendidly paced.

 


Staging was striking, with superb use of focussed shafts of light against contrasting backgrounds. Nice touches abounded (for example the newspaper headline of ‘By Jove’ in reaction to Semele’s abduction; later in Act II, ‘Jupiter Semele Shock’). The first singer we hear is Iain Paterson (most recently in my experience Leporello in Don Giovanni). Here surrounded by evening-dressed chorus and shorn of football scarf, he was strong in his portrayal, if not massive of voice. But head and shoulders above him, musically, stood Robin Blaze’s characterful counter-tenor (Blaze seems always a pleasure to hear). Anne Marie Gibbons took the role of Ino, Semele’s sister, and superbly. She must have had a lot to live up to, for this role had previously been sung by Sarah Connolly, whose Dido was such a success earlier this season. In the event Gibbons excelled.


Janis Kelly was a power-dressed Iris, assistant to Juno (the excellent Patricia Bardon). Even Kelly’s melismas were power-dressed, so strong and accurate were they. This is the place for the vengeance music, to contrast with the lovers’ Scene 2. Enter the instantly recognisable (I refer to his voice) Ian Bostridge. Bostridge is a remarkable singer in many ways, yet whether he sings his beloved Britten, Schubert, or Handel, there seems a definite limit to his expressive vocabulary. True, here in Semele one could only marvel at how he could sing nicely and effectively and shag at the same time (how distracting must that have been), but even here it was Carolyn Sampson’s (Semele’s) spot-on pitching and purity of tone that impressed the more.

 


A last-minute cancellation meant that Somnus (God of Sleep), due to be taken by Graeme Danby, was in fact sung by the bass Paul Reeves, who appears to be a young singer of remarkable versatility (his wide repertoire includes Matthew in Birtwistle’s excellent The Last Supper). His assumption of Somnus was a triumph of vocal focus with never a hint of the substitution about it. Perhaps the highlight of Act III, though, was Semele’s narcissism aria (wherein she appears to fall in love with her own image in a mirror).


In many ways a remarkable evening. Certainly one of much imagination in taking an ostensibly fairly static work and making it successful theatre. ENO continues to stimulate.


Colin Clarke


Photos: Ian Bostridge (Jupiter), Carolyn Sampson (Semele) and Patrica Bardon (Juno) © Alastair Muir



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