Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Semele @ Coliseum, London

18, 20, 23, 26 November, 1, 16, 18 December 2004

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

A Handel opera – almost any one will do – always revives the soul. Most of the arias are totally interchangeable of course, but there is usually at least one ravishing tune that if well sung makes life just that bit more worthwhile. In Semele the aria is Where’er You Walk, and sung by Ian Bostridge, making his debut as Jupiter, it’s all you could possibly hope.

Carolyn Sampson is his Semele, and both looks and acts the charming, naïve, not-really-very-innocent victim of Jupiter’s sexual predation. Apart from a few harsh notes at the top her bright, sure soprano was also a delight.

Robert Carsen’s witty production, seen here in 1999, is a welcome return and remains fresh under the direction of John La Bouchardière. Congreve’s satire on Jupiter and one of his sexual escapades caused much speculation as to the intended subject in 1704 (King William and …?), and again in 1743 when Handel set it to music (King George and …?).

Of all the stories of opera this has to be one of the most perennial and updated to the 1950s, with glamorous couture gowns for the bevy of court ladies, it works fine. The period helps give credibility to Ian Bostridge as Jupiter, as his whip-thin physique would not perhaps be an obvious choice for The Thunderer. But choosing a human form to appeal to the pretty – but definitely rather empty-headed society blonde, Semele – he gets away with it.

The simple but striking designs by Patrick Kinmonth – little more than a ceremonial doorway of majestic proportions, assorted chairs, a bed and some clever lighting – provide a practical backdrop for some fine singing, some decent comedy and a few really good jokes.

When this production first opened Juno – Jupiter’s vengeful wife – as the spitting image of The Queen in full regalia caused a wonderful shock of recognition. Appropriate of course in view of the history of the opera, and very funny. Patricia Bardon carries it off well, though the music seems at time to tax her lower register. She’s assisted in her scenes by Janis Kelly as the accident-prone Iris, a wonderful comic creation.

Somnus’ cave is peopled by a host of pyjama-clad sleepers in sleeping bags, like a slumber party for adults, and Somnus himself (well sung by Paul Reeves, replacing an indisposed Graeme Danby) suitably bleary-eyed and rumpled.

Best of all, the tabloid headlines after Semele’s abduction by Jupiter – “By Jove”; “Semele – I’m In Heaven”; Jupiter and Semele – It’s Official”. In many ways this production owes a great deal to Nicholas Hytner’s award-winning Xerxes, alas no longer in the repertoire at the Coliseum, it seems.

The “straight” characters – the mortals – are well-sung, moving and dignified. Iain Paterson is King Cadmus, Semele’s father; Robin Blaze sings Athamus, the Prince she doesn’t want to marry, and Anne-Marie Gibbons is Ino, Semele’s sister, who does want to marry him and who gets her way when Semele is whisked off to higher things.

The major treat though has to be Ian Bostridge. In 1999 John Mark Ainsley brought a meltingly sweet tone to Jupiter – seduction by voice alone. Bostridge’s rendering is more complex, the sweetness well to the fore but tempered by a hint of steel behind. In the final scene no-one should be surprised that he’s already making up to one of the court ladies, with Juno realising that she may have got rid of one upstart bit of fluff but there will always be another…

A small baroque orchestra is well conducted by Laurence Cummings, providing enough pace to make the evening fly by.

Six performances before Christmas. If you want a stylish, witty evening with soul food thrown in, this is one for you.

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