It is easy to see why Handel’s Semele was such a flop when it premiered in 1744. When audiences were expecting another Samson or Saul, a steamy tale of sex, seduction, betrayal and revenge was never likely to go down well during the Lenten season.
By the same token, however, it is no more difficult to explain why this current Royal Academy Opera production is such a success. Not only are we happy to warm to the subject matter today, but this young, and highly talented, cast succeed in tempering the necessary vitality and raunchiness with a certain youthful innocence.
Director Anna Sweeny has chosen to set the tale in castle grounds, with the opera itself being staged by the owner of the estate’s wife. The chorus stand in tiers on one side of a classical pergola, as if supporting a summer outdoors production, whilst we as the audience become an extension of those spectators who sit opposite them. If the negative effect of this decision is that a major part of the performance area becomes cluttered with people, their continuous responses to the action mean that there is always something to catch the eye.
The cast is superb, and though their gestures occasionally feel a little stylised and over-rehearsed, the frequent tableaux that result from these are no less effective for that. Russell Harcourt is a particularly fine Athamas, and there is a very fluid quality to his movement. His countertenor voice is striking, yet pure, and if in some of the less lyrical passages it becomes too hard-edged, he certainly succeeds in putting sufficient power behind all the notes. Roberto Gomez Ortiz excels in Jupiter’s aria ‘Where'er you walk’, whilst Kate Symonds-Joy is a beautifully mature voiced Ino. There is also good interaction between Laura Kelly’s hard-nosed Juno, and Mary Bevan’s splendid Iris, the messenger of the gods.
But it is Lauryna Bendziunaite’s Semele who reigns supreme. Her voice is thrilling, and if it can sometimes be a little overbearing and unrelenting, we never have cause to doubt the quality of the sound. Whether she is admiring herself in the mirror, preening her hair and stroking her fingers, or crumbling in pain when Jupiter is absent, we constantly gain new insights into this feisty, but ultimately doomed, character.
The chorus contributes handsomely to the performance, whilst the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra benefits immensely from having Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm. If a little hesitant during the Overture, it then goes on to deliver a beautifully balanced sound, at a perfectly judged pace, for the remainder of the evening.
It is no slur against Mackerras, but rather a tribute to the strength of the cast, to say that his conducting is by no means the only reason for making the trip to see this production.Nina Lejderman plays Semele on 18 and 20 November, and Laurence Cummings conducts the orchestra on 20 November.
- Sam Smith