Glyndebourne Festival 2023 – Handel’s Semele – Joélle Harvey, Stuart Jackson, Jennifer Johnston & Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen; directed by Adele Thomas; conducted by Václav Luks

Semele – Opera [sic] in three Acts to a libretto by William Congreve [sung in English with English surtitles]

Cadmus / Somnus – Clive Bayley
Athamas – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Semele – Joélle Harvey
Ino – Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Iris – Samuel Mariño
Juno – Jennifer Johnston
Jove – Stuart Jackson

Glyndebourne Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Václav Luks

Adele Thomas – Director
Annemarie Woods – Set Designer
Hannah Clark – Costumes
Emma Woods – Choreographer
Peter Mumford & Rick Fisher – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 23 July, 2023
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex, England

For Glyndebourne’s first staging of Handel’s Semele (1744), Adele Thomas draws some insightful connections between the cautionary tale of its scenario and her own personal experience. Her upbringing in an industrial part of south Wales inspires the backdrop of a leaden, claustrophobic grey sky, and a desolate, polluted wasteland, which serves as the prompt for Semele – as for anybody growing up in such an environment – to escape its confines. Drab uniformity and something like the moral severity and judgmentalism of a non-conformist and Celtic culture seems to be implied too by the dull grey and brown, 1970s-ish appearance of her father, relatives and friends at her impending marriage to Athamas, and her eventual wicker man sacrifice. Juno appears in an exuberant headdress, like the statues of the Virgin Mary in southern European churches or as a Hindu goddess, perhaps also importing the archetype of moral conscience.

Otherwise, much as we might root for a young Thomas or Semele to better themselves in such unpromising circumstances, the production does very little to advance these rudimentary ideas. There is the semblance of development immediately after she is whisked away from her wedding: Semele appears with Jove for ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’, hovering in a flowery bed of passion and suspended above the dreary environment she has escaped, in an ironically subverted visual metaphor of the deux ex machina, seeing that she is the mortal aspiring to immortality, rather than an immortal descending to put the worldly order right. But nothing in the production then corresponds to whatever it is that Semele longs for – whether that be something merely illusory or really accessible in this world – and what follows is essentially a series of inconsequential gimmicks, which perhaps enables Thomas to exorcise her own demons, but offers no potent concept, or critical social or psychological commentary. It doesn’t help that the production seems to want to channel something of the same choreographical exuberance of Barrie Kosky’s staging of Saul – the previous Handel oratorio mounted by Glyndebourne – but that isn’t sustained with the same panache or consistency. Only in the concluding chorus does there emerge a clear Dionysian frenzy – if something of a cliché – for the appearance of the infant Bacchus, in the guise of Caravaggio’s painting, though more impishly sinister.

In between, the reedy marshland blossoms a little, for apparently no better reason than that Jove eulogises Semele with “where’er you tread the blushing flowers shall rise and all things flourish” in his famous aria. It is also unfortunate that, when he first creeps up through the bulrushes in a gleaming lime green suit, he resembles a frog. It turns out that it is probably supposed to be a lustrous yellow or gold to presage his thunderbolts and fiery presence which will kill Semele, but the stage lighting doesn’t quite do that justice. Apart from Stuart Jackson’s tenderly, intimately delivered ‘Where’er you walk’, his performance is marred by a curiously snarling unevenness that doesn’t convince as a consistent musical character trait, aggravated by the production’s failure to develop his personality and intentions in one direction or another, as either sincere, or instead as an unreliable, self-regarding lover who falsely lures Semele on. 

Joélle Harvey’s account of the title role is colourfully descriptive for the most part – emotional and heartfelt when it matters, playful and capricious elsewhere. But the exquisite suspensions of the solemn opening section of the duet with her sister Ino ‘Prepare then, ye immortal choir’ are ever so slightly off pitch. There are decent performances from Stephanie Wake-Edwards and Jennifer Johnston, respectively in that latter role and as the jealous Juno, who adopts Ino’s demeanour to sow invidiously the seed of doubt in Semele’s mind about Jove’s motivations. Samuel Mariño scuttles and stomps around as Juno’s sidekick Iris, but provides a seamless, if soft, vocal line in his male soprano register.  Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s more liquid countertenor grounds the part of Athamas in a more earthly, solid reality. Clive Bayley is a grainy voiced Cadmus, Semele’s father, and later Somnus, the god of sleep, emerging from a snowy white landscape, for no clear reason dressed like Pierrot of the commedia dell’arte.

Václav Luks conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a vigorous interpretation, notably different from the orchestra’s last traversal of the score, in a more ravishingly varied concert performance with Christophe Rousset in 2017. The stern determination of the Overture and the opening numbers emphasise the work’s moral gravity, and a fairly brisk tempo overall (as well as various cuts) drive the narrative on to its pre-destined tragic end. Some room is left for human tenderness and reflection along the way. Added percussion make it a functionally (if distractingly) theatrical reading. The well-disciplined Glyndebourne Chorus sings with marvellously crisp diction and musical conviction.

After Thomas’s excellent Bajazet for Irish Opera, seen at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2022, it’s a pity that this Semele doesn’t share its sharp visual and conceptual focus, nor also the clear critical angle of Olivia Fuchs’s production for the Royal Academy of Music in 2018. By comparison, and in retrospect, that strikes me now as a more impressively finished article than it did at the time, offering a more multi-layered drama which largely registers at Glyndebourne only in the musical performance.

Further performances to August 26

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