In the early 1740s Handel gave up writing dramatic works for the stage as no longer commercially viable. However, he continued to write musical works under the title oratorio intended for concert performance. The first of these and one which has stood out as unique is the secular oratorio Semele which has had immense success staged as an opera. It is also, for Handel, unusual in its choice of subject. With libretto by William Congreve, based on Ovid, it is a steamy tale of adultery. Top god Jupiter has fallen for a mortal girl Semele. Semele is about to marry Admetus with whom her sister Ino is in love. At the wedding Jupiter in the form of an eagle carries Semele off to a love-nest he has prepared, guarded by dragons, where he woos her in mortal form. Not unnaturally this upsets his wife Juno who has blessed the engagement to Admetus. With the aid of the god Somnus, putting the dragons to sleep, Juno visits Semele in the guise of Ino and persuades her to withhold her favours from Jupiter unless he comes to her in full immortal glory. Full of lust, he reluctantly agrees to do so with fatal results: Semele is burnt to a cinder. From her ashes an infant Bacchus arises, eventually to console Ariadne – but that’s another story.
I have remarked many times that the dramatic power of Handel’s writing overwhelms any attempt by the director to impose their own agenda. After the first Act of this production, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, one thinks she may have succeeded. The opening wedding scene is staged in modern dress as an Anglican ceremony, until Semele is carried off, instead of by an eagle, by a chorus of airline flight crew. Instead of creating a romantic atmosphere, this is played for laughs; it was not funny. There follows an even more grotesque invention. A heavily pregnant Juno, surrounded by a group of infant progeny, goes through the last stages of pregnancy, aided by Somnus, as an anaesthetist. This gratuitous irrelevance is only saved by the professionalism of the brilliant singing and character acting of Christine Rice as Juno and David Soar as Somnus. By Act Three, Handel has reasserted himself and we were able to sit back and enjoy some marvellous singing and playing by the soloists and the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus. In a remarkable series of solos and duets, Texan soprano Heidi Stober as Semele and tenor Robert Murray go from strength to strength culminating in the well-known excerpt Where E’er you Walk, giving it erotic overtones not apparent when sung out of context. Apart from a voice any mortal could fall in love with, Jupiter is unprepossessing in appearance, while Semele, alternating between wedding dress and close-fitting silver garment could credibly win the heart of any god.
The extended final scene, the birth of Bacchus, is visually stunning. The immortals, including Juno’s offspring, appear gold-clad with wings, and an infant Bacchus, Henry Pauly, charmed us all. From the first notes of the impressive overture, to the final chorus, the conductor Jonathan Cohen proved that it is not for nothing that he is Associate Director of Les Arts Florissants.
Semele was performed at Wormsley between 3rd June and 4th July 2017. This was followed by a number of screenings of the production, the last of which will be in Grimsby on 15th October.