The Oldie - - ARTS -

We think we live in fast-chang­ing times. But it’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that a mere forty years sep­a­rate the two op­eras, Han­del’s Semele and Mozart’s Le nozze di Fi­garo – both mas­ter­pieces, both touch­ing on the nowa­days touchy sub­ject of the phi­lan­der­ing male – with which Gars­ing­ton Opera opened its 2017 sea­son.

What’s also dif­fi­cult to be­lieve is the gulf which lay be­tween the two pro­duc­tions. With the re­vival of John Cox’s clas­sic 2005 stag­ing of Fi­garo, thrillingly re­alised by a gifted young cast and su­perbly con­ducted by Dou­glas Boyd, we had as yeasty an ac­count of Mozart’s comic mas­ter­piece as any of us is likely to en­counter this side of the Great Di­vide. But the Semele: lordy, lordy, what was all that about?

When di­rec­tor An­nilese Miskim­mon staged Mozart’s court pas­toral Il re pa­s­tore at the old Gars­ing­ton in 2007, it was an ob­ject les­son in how to do very lit­tle with next to noth­ing and ren­der the ef­fect sub­lime. Would that she had re­peated the trick with Semele, ‘one of the purest recre­ations of the Greek spirit in mod­ern Euro­pean art’, as the great Han­del scholar Win­ton Dean once put it.

Sadly, there was lit­tle that was pure, and vir­tu­ally noth­ing that was Greek, in Miskim­mon’s stag­ing, with its kitsch de­signs, bad jokes about bud­get air­lines and ob­ses­sive in­ter­est in fe­male fer­til­ity.

The great mis­take is to be­lieve that Semele is an or­a­to­rio which needs gin­ger­ing up for the mod­ern stage. Like the great Wag­ne­r­ian mu­sic-dra­mas which they partly an­tic­i­pate, these late Han­del opera-or­a­to­rios take a story that is sim­ply told yet richly freighted in hu­man in­ter­est.

Semele is just such a story, the tale of a light-headed mor­tal who brings about her own im­mo­la­tion by seek­ing coition with a god. (And not just any god but Jupiter, the play­boy king.) Semele’s is a tragedy of feck­less self-ab­sorp­tion, mar­ried to the de­struc­tive power of pas­sions that grow by what they feed on.

Such dra­mas are buoyed and sus­tained by the mu­sic a Han­del or a Wag­ner pro­vides. They un­fold slowly and are en­riched by sim­ple stag­ing. A week af­ter see­ing this far­rago of a Semele, I at­tended a per­for­mance of Wag­ner’s Tris­tan und Isolde at the Long­bor­ough Fes­ti­val that was as sim­ply con­ceived as it was stu­pen­dous in ef­fect. But more of that next month.

Han­del’s Juno, Jupiter’s wife, is a noble crea­ture, al­beit one who’s happy to de­scend into any gut­ter to bring low her hated ri­val. As a study of ag­grieved self-in­ter­est, it has few equals. Ab­sent from Act 1, which is set in her own epony­mous tem­ple, she first ap­pears at the start of Act 2, air­lifted into a wooded land­scape, not un­like the one sur­round­ing Gars­ing­ton’s new the­atre, from where her seek-and-de­stroy mis­sion is promptly set in train.

Not, how­ever, in Miskim­mon’s reimag­in­ing. Hav­ing ap­peared in Act 1, sur­rounded by a pri­vate kinder­garten – all girls, dressed in pink – Juno reap­pears at the start of Act 2 in an NHS ma­ter­nity ward where we find her, frumpily and painfully, in the throes of labour. The mytho­log­i­cal Juno is not un­con­nected with child­birth – the Ital­ian god­dess Opi­gena – is an early Ital­ian fore­bear. But it takes the strangest of 21st-cen­tury mind­sets to aban­don the sce­nario for which Han­del (no mean mu­sic-drama­tist) has

cre­ated some rather good mu­sic, in or­der to en­ter­tain us with a birthing scene.

There were times in the sec­ond half – for ex­am­ple, dur­ing the woo­ing of Semele where Jupiter de­clares, ‘Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade’ – when the pro­duc­tion de­clut­tered and Han­del’s pas­toral vi­sion shone through. But these were beau­ti­ful mo­ments amid some fairly dread­ful quar­ters of an hour.

The cast, on the distaff side at least, was dis­tin­guished, with the mag­nif­i­cent Chris­tine Rice a po­ten­tially for­mi­da­ble Juno and the Amer­i­can col­oratura Heidi Sto­ber play­ing and singing the ti­tle role with panache.

No one in re­cent mem­ory has matched Kath­leen Bat­tle’s in­sou­ciance and vo­cal al­lure in Semele’s great aria ‘My­self I must adore’ – an an­them for a nar­cis­sis­tic age if ever there was one. (You can hear her on the glo­ri­ously sung and re­veal­ingly com­plete 1990 Deutsche Gram­mophon record­ing con­ducted by John Nel­son.) In fact, Sto­ber made a greater im­pact with her fi­nal aria, where Semele be­comes the Mae­nad to whose race her im­mo­la­tion will give birth.

And here was an­other non­sense: the pres­ence on stage in the work’s fi­nal scene of the young Diony­sus (Sto­ber’s own son) perched in his late mother’s cof­fin. The truth is, the em­bry­onic Diony­sus was sewn into Jupiter’s thigh to await par­tu­ri­tion. Though, as Ovid hints in

Me­ta­mor­phoses, if you be­lieve that, you’ll prob­a­bly be­lieve any­thing.

Panache amid patch­i­ness: Heidi Sto­ber shines as Han­del’s sen­su­ous mor­tal, Semele

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