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