After the premiere of Deidamia in early 1741, Handel composed no more operas as such, concentrating instead on creating a series of unstaged music-dramas based on the Bible or occasionally, as in Semele (1744), on episodes from Classical mythology for the edification of Christian audiences during Lent. Charles Jennens (librettist for some of these works, but not Semele) described it as “no oratorio but a baudy [sic] opera”. He was quite right to notice its full theatrical potential, but it is surprising that the po-faced Evangelical proselytiser failed to see beyond the exuberance of the score and plot to the latent moral.
It is not clear, however, that Olivia Fuchs’s production really takes seriously or recognises either facet, disappointingly after her excellent Alcina with the RAM in 2016, one of the best Handel stagings I have seen. Her production of Semele falls back on some basic dramaturgical clichés such as a cast in suits for the opening sequence amongst the mortals at the anticipated marriage of the lead role and Athamas – in this case, black tie and ball-gowns at what looks like a high society celebration; mobile phones brandished at anyopportunity; and dance and choreographic gestures by the chorus that appear to pay homage to the those of the choir in Peter Sellars’s Glyndebourne production of Theodora twenty-two years ago, but now look merely naff or quaint at best.
The rest of the narrative is dramatically and visually static or inexplicable – as Semele is whisked away from Earth to Mount Cithaeron which is nothing more than a platform suspended a small height over the main stage. For his first numbers, Jupiter appears in an orange overall, perhaps meant to resemble a fire-fighter in order to draw a connection with the thunderbolts of fire that he deploys as the manifestation of his power, but otherwise he is clad in a plain suit, and no further point is made about his earlier attire. Semele herself meets her scorched end as the crowd gather around her with their phone-cameras yet again and snap away, although Jupiter’s fatal fire is evoked by the flashes emanating from the lights behind them. Perhaps the point being made is that, as the over-weaning ambition and self-promotion of those ‘celebs’ like Semele – carried away by their own whims and vanity – put them at the forefront of public attention, so it is that under such scrutiny their reputation, integrity and soul inevitably die. If so, Fuchs perhaps misses a trick during Semele’s famously self-regarding aria ‘Myself I shall adore’ by not making any satirical comment upon the narcissistic craze for taking ‘selfie’ portraits and posting them to Instagram and Facebook. But that may be reading too much into the matter – if that is the moral, it is weakly made: Semele’s installation as Jupiter’s mistress is not obviously any sort of elevation as the king of the gods is just an ordinary figure here and, notwithstanding his predictable (or ironic?) gifts of champagne, chocolates, flowers, and shoes, the court of her father, Cadmus, looks more glamorous by comparison (superficially at any rate).
Reasonable but not outstanding musical performances only go so far to salvage some interest. Lina Dambrauskaitė effects a wonderful transformation from the sullen, resentful figure of the opening (being forced by her father to wed Athamas) to the more vivaciously captivating lover of Jupiter, although there was room for more sparkle, for all her virtuosity. Her sister, Ino – in love with Athamas herself – is taken with some gusto by Olivia Warburton, if sometimes slightly insecure, and likewise Alexander Simpson’s Athamas who, although generally pure of tone, can sometimes be shrill.
Ryan Williams sounds too reedy to make a completely convincing wooer and lover in Jupiter, his ‘Where’er you walk’ decent enough, but not memorable. Frances Gregory is dependable as his jealous wife, Juno, compared with her somewhat squally accomplice of Emilie Cavallo’s Iris, though both achieve notable vocal agility, making them natural Handelian singers (both made fine contributions to the concert performance of Teseo at this year’s London Handel Festival). Thomas Bennett, taking both Cadmus and the god of sleep, Somnus, sings with some power and command, but in a slightly broad manner such that his tone is not entirely focussed.
The Chorus of Royal Academy Opera offers the most disciplined and consistent pleasure with slick and lively execution, responding effectively to Laurence Cummings’s robust direction, as does the Royal Academy Sinfonia sustaining a neat, urgent pace, underpinned by discreet, satisfying harpsichord accompaniment. There are no great insights into either the drama or the vocal music, then, but Handel’s work survives for its psychological penetration and ravishing charm.
- Further performances to November 17 (with alternate casts)