Review: ‘Semele’ at Garsington Opera

Deities disport themselves against an Arcadian backdrop in Handel’s sensual tale of love and revenge

‘Semele’ at Garsington Opera, with Heidi Stober in the title role. Image: Johan Persson   

Garsington Opera plays from a pavilion theatre elegantly situated in the immaculate grounds of the Gettys’ Wormsley Estate – home, among other things, to England’s prettiest cricket square. In Handel’s Semele, they have found the perfect fit for such an Arcadian setting. Handel originally saw it as a concert piece – coming so soon after his oratorio masterpieces Messiah and Samson – but Semele was thought so inappropriate that (according to my excellent programme notes) it was described by one contemporary wag as a ‘bawdatorio’. Now, of course, it has found a place in the opera canon, with successive post-war generations finding this witty romp a blessed relief from blowhard 19th-century repertoire.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley. Image: Clive Barda

The story follows the priapic manoeuvres of Jove, who, taking the form of an eagle, seizes the princess Semele, taking her for his mistress. His wife Juno – in this production forever in the maternity ward – is outraged and sets out to destroy her rival. With the help of the god of sleep, Somnus, she breaks into Jove’s love citadel and convinces the hapless booby Semele to ask to see Jove in his true godly likeness – no longer being content to put up with the human form Jove hides behind. The opera ends with the rather conservative cautionary tale of what happens to people who overreach themselves, as Semele is frazzled alive at the mere sight of Jove unveiled and Bacchus is born from her ashes.

‘Semele’ at Garsington Opera, with Christine Rice as Juno, Heidi Stober as Semele, Jurgita Adamonyte as Ino. Image: Johan Persson   

Annilese Miskimmon’s production is a modern cartoon. The maternity ward in which the wonderful Christine Rice, as Juno, labours is straight out of a 1970s Carry On film. Jove’s attendants are a band of creepy cabin stewards in camply pinched light-blue uniforms. At various turns a giant heart dominates the stage, against a backdrop spotted by moonscapes. Semele’s demise is a coup de théâtre I shan’t spoil and the liberal sprinkling of very small children playing Juno’s daughters and Bacchus threatens to upstage the adults.

‘Semele’ at Garsington Opera, with Heidi Stober in the title role with the chorus. Image: Johan Persson   

The music was impressively done. Jonathan Cohen took confident command in the pit from the first moment, coaxing beautiful Baroque phrasing from his modern-instrument band, and gave the evening a thrilling and muscular pace. Robert Murray sang with his healthy lyric tenor sound, being able to respond to both dramatic passages and the croon and charm of ‘Where’er you walk’. Heidi Stoiber, as Semele, sang beautifully with even tone from a high silvery top to a substantial lower register, performing coquettishly in ‘Endless Pleasure’ and with moving simplicity in ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’. The versatile bass-baritone David Soar provided most of the evening’s laughs as Somnus (also doubling as Semele’s father Cadmus). Special mention must, however, go to the chorus, whose singing of the ten choruses in the piece really couldn’t be bettered.

‘Semele’ is in repertory at Garsington Opera until 4 July 2017 and will be broadcast throughout the country as part of Garsington’s Opera for All free public screenings (Oxford and Skegness on 1 July; Ramsgate on 22 July; Bridgwater on 29 July; and Grimsby on 11 October).  

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