Royal Academy of Music – Handel’s Semele

Semele – Opera in three acts to a libretto by William Congreve

Semele – Lauryna Bendziunaite
Ino – Kate Symonds-Joy
Cadmus – Oliver Dunn
Athamas – Russell Harcourt
Jupiter – Roberto Gomez Ortiz
Juno – Laura Kelly
Iris – Mary Bevan
Somnus – Frederick Long
Apollo – Alexander Sprague
Zephyrs – Runette Botha, Jonathan McGovern & Fu Quian

Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras [Act I]
Jane Glover [Acts II & III]

Anna Sweeny – Director
Michael Holt – Designer
Leonard Tucker – Lighting
Mandy Demetriou – Choreography

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 November, 2009
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaAlthough, on the face of it, simply staged by Anna Sweeny, this production of Handel’s “Semele” was made overly complicated by a gloss which required a number of silent presences, stage-right, who sat and watched the action of Handel and Congreve’s witty oratorio about Juno’s revenge on her adulterous husband Jupiter for bedding Semele. These “watchers” were meant to signify the family and guests of the lady who is presenting the opera, in the grounds of her castle, utilising a classical columned grotto; an unnecessary visual distraction, but – thankfully – it didn’t spoil the enjoyment of what Handel and Congreve wrote.

This was the final performance in the four-show run at the Royal Academy of Music’s Sir Jack Lyons Theatre and the third conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. In the event he only conducted the first act; he was feeling unwell and Jane Glover took over for the second and third acts. She is the artistic director of Royal Academy Opera, but – apart from providing the programme note – not acknowledged as particularly being associated with this production (unlike associate conductor Glenville Hargreaves or the conductor of the penultimate performance, Laurence Cummings), yet she directed with Mackerras-like verve and care, as if she had attended every rehearsal.

Sweeny directed her singing cast with adroitness across the reduced stage, given that the chorus, in black, was raised in seating to one side. While some of her decisions were odd (having Juno to sit, silent, for the whole first act, where an effigy of the goddess would have sufficed) and her ‘da capo action’ a little uninspired (it is an art creating action for the singer while they repeat words; though perhaps we have been spoilt, especially at English National Opera, where the presentation of Semele’s fate was clearly told.

Singing honours certainly go to Lithuanian Lauryna Bendziunaite who sang the title role (Semele was the only role shared between performances: Nina Lejderman had sung two performances the previous week). Her English pronunciation and diction was exemplary while her sometimes-trenchant tone was always clear above the orchestral ensemble. Her duet with sister Ino (Kate Symonds-Joy) also proved she can sing quietly.

Mexican Roberto Gomez Ortiz, though not quite as expert as Bendziunaite in projecting Congreve’s text, certainly looked the part of roving Jupiter. The Juno and Iris double-act might have benefitted from some more business, but Laura Kelly came into her own after Juno had persuaded Somnus (Frederick Long replacing Vytautas Vepstas) to help her in her plan to cause Semele’s downfall. She impersonates Ino (Semele’s sister) and, with a mirror, she inspires in Semele a vanity (‘Myself I shall adore’) that encourages her to ask Jupiter to come to her in his godly form, persuading Semele that, in so doing, she will become immortal but – of course – it will kill her.Handel at his most ebullient, I have to admit a particular liking for “Semele”, and Royal Academy Opera did it proud. We wish Sir Charles a speedy recovery, while welcoming “Albert Herring”, which is the next production (8, 10, 12 & 15 March), and then Cavalli’s “Giasone” (conducted by Jane Glover on 6 & 7 May).

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