Presenting oratorio in fully staged performances is now a well-established tradition and there have been many notable successes. Even Handel’s own performances were usually semi-staged in some fashion. Though he wrote Semele (with a libretto by Congreve) “after the manner of an oratorio”, it is in all but name an opera and with its cast of pagan gods and their weaker human playthings, oozes sex and secularity. More bawditorio than oratorio, the singers resemble opera-goers themselves as much as they do performers.
Director Annilese Miskimon brings the two worlds together with charm and humour, though the two central characters of Semele and Jupiter perhaps remain a little undefined. Semele herself is a bit of a handful – often difficult to sympathise with – certainly she is delightful, sexy and interesting, but also flighty, ambitious, manipulative and vain.
Desperate for the ultimate promotion to immortality, some might say that ultimately she gets what she deserves. Difficult, then, for a singer to translate Semele’s complexities to her audience, but Heidi Stober (pictured), who bravely worked through a foot injury, was beautiful and engaging, delivering “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love” superbly, despite rather too much distracting business around her.
Protean Jupiter, who is mostly disguised in human shape, assumes the form of an
eagle to ravish his lover off-stage. Dressed throughout in a blue suit Robert Murray is vocally convincing, never more so than when declaring his love for Semele in the famous and deeply moving aria “Where’er You Walk”, but I do like my gods to have a little more stature, and perhaps a litle more finger-pointing bling.
As Athamas, the scorned intended of Semele, Christopher Ainslie gained projection after a slightly unfocussed start. The outstanding voice was that of Christine Rice. Her Juno had all the depth and passion the jealous goddess commands, combined with warmth and a natural gift for comedy. David Soar, too, delivered a quality sound, singing the dual roles of Cadmus and the laughably lethargic Somnus. Jurgita Adamonyte elicits sympathy as Ino, the sister of Semele, despite herself carrying a torch for Athamas.Slighly edgy in tone at first, Llio Evans, delighted as Iris, messenger of the gods.
Nicky Shaw’s unfussy design was nice enough – though it’s hard to compete with the beauty of the Wormsley Hall parkland that lies beyond – the backdrop of celestial orbs were ravishingly well-lit, and in a simple but effective device Illuminated globes were carried around by the chorus, aided by scampering children too cute for words.
Jonathan Cohen, who directs his own period band, Archangelo, brings that experience to his conducting here. Tempos were perfectly judged and he coaxed a sophisticated tone from the violins.
Surprisingly this is the first Handel to be staged by Garsington. I look forward to many more.
Also in repetory this season is community opera Silver Birch, newly commissioned from the wonderful Roxanna Panufnik, Mozart and Rossini. In the olden days, opera patrons would have washed down a brace of snipe with a flagon of wine during the entertainment. I can’t help but wish they still could. The enforced 80-minute picnic break makes the evening longer than it needs be. Of course, you could always cut to the chase and view one of the free cinema screenings of Semele listed below. You’d be hard-pushed to find a better use of your time.
l July 1 Skegness and Oxford, July 22 Ramsgate, July 29 Bridgwater, October 15 Grimsby. www.garsingtonopera.org/news/opera-all-2017-screenings.