Gardiner’s vigorous take on Semele with a superb cast in an enchanting one-off performance at Alexandra Palace Theatre

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Among Handel’s output, Semele (1743) can be viewed, somewhat, as sui generis. Subtitled as a ”dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Semele is, in fact, an opera in English. Instead of a fully-fledged staging, it was originally performed ”after the manner of an oratorio” upon its premiere in February 1744.

There were only six performances during Handel’s lifetime, and it took almost two centuries until Semele made its return to the repertoire, both on stage and in the concert hall.

Instead of customarily Biblical subject, Semele is based on a pre-existent libretto by William Congreve, which, in its turn, draws its subject from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The original libretto was substantially reworked into its Handelian guise, fusing elements of opera and oratorio together into one formidably dramatic whole.

Musically, Semele is one of Handel’s most intense and imaginative music theatre works. With its emotionally charged arias, eloquently contrapuntal choruses and colourful orchestral music, Semele is an unique achievement in the Handel oeuvre.

In this respect, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s decision to return to Semele for the first time since the early eighties, was most welcome one. Only five performances, featuring the Monteverdi ensembles and a marvelous cast, were scheduled between 8 April and 9 May, to form a small spring tour.

Alongside performances in Paris, Barcelona, Milan and Rome, Gardiner and his forces appeared on their London home ground too, for a single performance at the newly-renovated Alexandra Palace Theatre, a marvellous North London venue requiring a bit of commuting. Despite its location outside the City, the house was practically sold out on Thursday evening.

With Gardiner, Semele was presented in a semi-staged guise, well suited for both dramatic and musical purposes. While a critical version of the score still awaits for its publication as a part of the Halle Handel Edition, a tailor-made edition for these performances was provided by the Bärenreiter Verlag.

The libretto of Semele weaves a passionate story involving deities and humans, all caught in a web of complicated relationships and adultery. The opera opens with Athamas’ and Semele’s wedding ceremony, interrupted by Jupiter. Summoned by Semele, who is secretly in love with the thunder-god, Jupiter appears in the shape of a giant eagle and carries Semele away to a celestial abode. During the aftermath of this tempestuous intervention, Ino, Semele’s sister, confesses her love to Athamas.

The storyline of the first act provided Handel with a musical inspiration par excellence. Following the overture, we hear astounding choruses and evocative solo numbers, depicting, in their turn, a nuptial ceremony, a thunderstorm, and a vision of Semele, transported into Jupiter’s palace.

In the second act, Juno, angered by her husband’s adultery sends her herald, Iris, on a quest of finding the abode of Jupiter and Semele. Once the palace is discovered, Juno starts plotting her vengeance.

In the meanwhile, Semele and Jupiter, appearing in his human form, enjoy their mutual love and passion. Despite her blissful state, Semele yearns for immortality, to Jupiter’s concern. In order to soothe her spirit, Jupiter summons Ino to keep Semele company. The second act ends in enraptured music, as Semele and Ino, join with the chorus of nymphs and swains. Here, Handel writes some of his most sensual music to accompany the joys and passions manifested in this otherworldly realm.

The dramatic momentum reaches its zenith in the third act, a panoply of vengeance, comedy, terror and tragedy, leading to a soothing resolution. Juno lures Somnus, god of sleep, to her aid, promising him his favourite nymph, Pasithea. With negotiations turning into a brief act of comedy, Handel entertains the listener with ravishing musical interaction between Juno and Somnus.

With Somnus’ magical rod, Juno casts the spell of sleep upon the guardians of Jupiter’s realm, and assumes the form of Ino. She then joins Semele, advising her to persuade Jupiter to grant her any wish she desires and to appear to her in his true undisguised form.

Following Juno’s advice, Semele refuses her sexual favours to Jupiter, until he is forced to swear an irrevocable vow to grant her what she desires. Only when Jupiter appears in his hue of lightning and thunder, does Semele realize her folly. Lamenting, she is consumed by flames.

Once again, Handel’s imagination is in full bloom, as he sets the burning desires, both figurative and literal, into passionate music of yearning, love, horror and, eventually, sorrow. Yet, the this is not the end of the opera.

Brought safely back to Earth, Ino is wedded to Athamas, as commanded by Jupiter. In the midst of the joy reborn, Apollo appears, with a prophesy of the birth of Bacchus, rising from the ashes of Semele. A god of wine and the unborn child of Semele and Jupiter, Bacchus will bring forth a delight more mighty than love. The opera ends in a joint celebration.

Performed with vigour and lively spirit under Gardiner, Semele was a profound delight. The English Baroque Soloists tackled Handel’s orchestral colour with riveting musicality, while the outstanding members of the Monteverdi choir were, once again, on the very top of their game, resulting in excellent dramatic energy, clad in dexterous and transparent counterpoint.

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Among the excellent cast, Louise Alder’s Semele and Lucile Richardot’s Juno/Ino were the two brightest stars. Alder’s sensuous portrayal of Semele’s unyielding desire and eventual downfall was absolutely enthralling, while Richadot’s take on her double role was versatile as ever, depicting the emotional continuum with a commanding presence, both vocally and theatrically.

Gianluca Buratto provided the audience with some splendid comedy with his marvellous portrayal of Somnus, while Hugo Hymas was an excellent Jupiter, depicting the amorous deity with delightful youthfulness. Alongside uplifting contributions from Carlo Vistoli, Emily Owen, Angela Hicks and Peter Davoren, this was a gorgeous cast, one ideally suited for Semele.

With a sublime staging, a trademark feature with Gardiner performances, Semele was wonderfully brought to life at Alexandra Palace Theatre. The performance was recorded for a forthcoming album release on the Monteverdi Ensembles house label, Soli Deo Gloria, thus happily preserved for a wider audience outside the lucky ones present at these performances.    

 

English Baroque Soloists

Monteverdi Choir

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor and director

 

George Frideric Handel: Semele, HWV 58 (1743)

 

Louise Alder, Semele

Hugo Hymas, Jupiter

Lucile Richardot, Juno / Ino

Carlo Vistoli, Athamas

Gianluca Buratto, Cadmus / Somnus

Emily Owen, Iris

Angela Hicks, Cupid

Peter Davoren, Apollo

 

Thomas Guthrie, director

Rick Fisher, lighting designer

Patricia Hofstede, costume designer

 

Alexandra Palace, London

2 May 2019, 7.30 pm

 

© Jari Kallio

 

 

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