Semele (London Handel Festival, 10 March 2015)
A few months ago when I was still worrying that I hadn’t seen enough Handel yet, I looked up the London Handel Festival and tried to pick some suitable things to see. Upon reading the synopsis, Semele sounded like fun. Other things came up, among which a certain confusion as to how to book tickets for it.
Long story short, last week I finally managed to buy the last cheap ticket. Come the day of the show, I had completely forgotten what this opera/oratorio was about. But armed with the knowledge it was in English (what was that aria I knew? Oh, it turns out there were two arias I knew) I thought I’d figure it out as it went.
SEMELE, Daughter to Cadmus, belov’d by and in love with Jupiter soprano: ANNA DEVIN
ATHAMAS, a Prince of Bœotia, in love with, and design’d to marry Semele counter-tenor: ROBIN BLAZE
INO, Sister to Semele, in love with Athamas mezzo-soprano: EWA GUBANSKA
SOMNUS bass: GEORGE HUMPHREYS
APOLLO/JUPITER tenor: RUPERT CHARLESWORTH
JUNO mezzo-soprano: LOUISE INNES
CADMUS, King of Thebes bass: GEORGE HUMPHREYS
IRIS soprano: MARIA VALDMAA
HIGH PRIEST alto: GEORGE HUMPHREYS
Conductor: LAURENCE CUMMINGS | London Handel Orchestra | London Handel Singers
Wrong. Aside from Somnus the bass and – very occasionally – others I could barely follow what was being said. Surely Handel had taken the time to craft music that would tell the story, right? Right this time. The word was billowy, especially when the choir was involved. But there was also a lot of frantic bowing when something particularly dramatic happened. I agree with Leander that Handel did an especially vivid job here. Right from the overture it’s quite obvious times had changed since, say, Rinaldo. Handel’s writing is less contricted by convention, a lot more atmospheric, almost expressionistic (apparently that’s quite normal for oratorios). Generally speaking, the orchestration is excellent and exciting though perhaps the arias (minus a few) aren’t quite as memorable as in his top operas.
What I could tell to start off was that Semele (I knew it was her, Devin wore the same sparkly blue dress as when she sang Morgana in Moscow’s Alcina in January) was sad. The very supportive choir came to her rescue or at least to commiserate. A chirpy countertenor (Robin Blaze as Athamas) showed up next and all I could think of was how good he’d be in stuff like this. An upset mezzo (Ewa Gubanska as Ino) accused him of being callous. They fought a bit. By operatic custom if the mezzo isn’t singing a castrato role she’s probably the sister and/or the soprano’s competitor. When the mezzo weeps, the soprano smiles: come the end of the act, Semele’s mood had considerably lifted. And that was the aria I knew – Endless pleasure, endless love. Devin suddently came alive in technicolour. I’d say her tone could be more focused, but she projects easily and is a lively actress (good at conveying flirtiness).
For whatever reason, pretty much everybody took a while to warm up, including the audience, who was very critical almost until the end of act I. I thought they were a tad harsh. I was having a ball every time the countertenor came in and that’s not what you usually hear from me. Apparently some weren’t quite as taken with his sound as I was but I really liked his very cheerful tone and if there were any technical problems I was blissfully unaware.
One thing though: please give singers score stands. Watching singers clutch their scores instead of interacting with each other takes away some of the fun.
During the intermission Leander filled in the bits of the story I didn’t quite catch: the mezzo wanted to marry the countertenor, who was in love with the soprano, who – surprise, surprise! – was in love with Jupiter (who hadn’t shown up yet but who was sure to have a – jealous – wife).
The second act shuffled in a bunch of new characters. Hey, that Handel was getting all fancy now – usually all the characters are introduced by the end of act I. The tenor – Jupiter for sure – sang very beautifully and sighs rose from the audience’s collective heaving bosom. He elicited the most energetic applause in act II. With good reason, Charlesworth has a beautiful tone and sang expressively in another role created by long time Handel collaborator John Beard (of Oronte and Lurcanio fame). Also, he’s easy on the eyes 😉 then again, Jupiter/Apollo should be. Interestingly, I felt that his arias were the most traditionally Baroque in the entire opera. Sometimes they almost felt lifted from an earlier, more conventional piece.
Eventually Jupiter’s disgruntled wife Juno showed up with the powerhouse aria Hence, Iris, hence away. Obvisouly it’s hard for a mezzo lover to be ignorant of this one. I was thinking now we’re cooking with gas! Except Innes didn’t exactly sound like a mezzo to me. If she is I am very sorry but I listened very carefully through her interventions and still am not sure she is. Though lyric/coloratura mezzos are my true love, I do like a bit of hammer of the gods full bodied fury in this one, such as Stephanie Blythe1 imparts here. So you can imagine I felt a bit underwhelmed. But such is the badassness of this aria that I liked it anyway. In all honesty, it seems quite difficult to pull off satisfactorily, judging by how many accomplished singers tend to come off rather washed up when singing it.
Keeping in mind Leander’s iffiness about Athamas I tried to be as critical as I could, though he only returns in act III. His last aria was pretty much all above the staff where I still thought he sounded great. I have no idea how well he conveyed the character, his Athamas seemed lalalala, life is sweet! through the opera.
Generally speaking eveybody sounded more relaxed in acts II and III and the audience responded accordingly. Or maybe it was the refreshments 😉 The choir continued its very energetic and beautifully “stereo” billowy contributions and the double bass worked hard for the money throughout. In act III Devin spun some impressive coloratura and pianissime. Then the rather daft and pompous Semele dies (although I will refrain from getting into what her symbolic death brings to mind as it’s not fit for polite company) and – woohoo! – the hard done by mezzo marries the chipper countertenor. All’s good in the world. But the ending is a bit odd – Dyonisus is born from Semele’s ashes? You mean it’s a symbol of drinking to forget past trauma? Maybe it’s just me overthinking it 😉
It was a good show, though I’ve heard better. Crucially, it introduced me to this beautiful, inventive work of Handel’s.
- I like SB a lot, though her Orphee scared me proper. Definitely not her repertoire (she jokes somewhere about barely surviving Dopo notte 😉 ) but a gorgeous voice, full of character. ↩