The entire cast of Semele, in the current Théâtre des Champs-Élysées production, popped over to London for an awayday. It's a pity they couldn't find room in their hand luggage for David McVicar's opulent staging; as it is, they arrived en masse with nothing to declare but Handel's genius.
On occasions such as these the orchestra becomes its own theatre. As the audience entered, the Barbican platform was occupied by the fascinating lone figure of Laura-Monica Pustilknik and her theorbo. (It's billed in the programme as a lute, but that hardly does justice to Mlle Pustilknik's monster of an instrument - ‘Call that a lute? That's a lute'. She must be Elastigirl to reach its distant upper frets.)
The panache of conductor Christophe Rousset and his ensemble of crack baroque players, Les Talents lyriques, soon filled out the décor. Their stylish musicianship drew the eye as well as the ear with surprises that would go unnoticed in the opera house, such as Stéphane Fuget's trick of playing the harpsichord with his left hand and the chamber organ with his right.
In front of this instrumental skyline (dominated by that Eiffel Tower of a theorbo/lute) there unfolded a superbly entertaining evening of drama and comedy. McVicar's name was strangely absent from the Barbican's programme material, yet his fingerprints were all over this concert performance and the whole piece was so richly delivered that it felt semi-staged at least. Rousset himself was always ready to look up from his own harpsichord (yes, there were two) and fill in for some absent courtier or other.
Every bit as incisive were the twenty voices of the Champs-Élysées choir. This gallery of Gallic natives proved their anglophone mettle with aplomb, airily dispatching Handelian tongue-twisters right from the first chorus (try gabbling ‘sure success shall crown your loves' at speed and you have a sense of it).
In the title role Danielle de Niese was pure Bratz doll, slinky and manipulative in a wanton scarlet gown, coquettish when larking with skylarks, hilariously vain when drinking in her bewitched reflection during her paean to self-love, ‘Myself I shall adore if I persist in gazing'. De Niese's tone, with its hint of woodsmoke, suited the role well in florid passages such as these, although her tonal control was less secure in the slower arias. Yet what fireworks she sparked during her climactic tantrum at Jupiter, ‘No, no, I'll take no less'.
Every bit as special was Vivica Genaux in her twin guises as sweet Ino (Semele's sister) and sour Juno (her nemesis). Genaux took a potentially bland role and used it to steal the show; so rich and beautiful is her burnt-sugar mezzo that one instinctively sides with her in any battle. As Juno's priapic husband, Jupiter himself, Richard Croft seemed a little out of vocal sorts at first but by the time he reached ‘Where'er you walk' he was back on song.
Jaël Azzaretti brought yet another timbre to the party as Iris, her accented English allowing her to float across the unsingable words ‘sweet retreat', while Claire Debono sang Cupid with honeyed tone and careless ease. Peter Rose, meanwhile, was dignity itself as Cadmus, the King of Thebes, before bringing the house down as a slumberous Somnus, the Yawning Man to the life.
What fun it all was. Four hours sped by at a Eurostar lick, and Semele's rebirth as Bacchus at the end of this fizzing performance will surely have prompted many a celebratory glass of French bubbly. Santé!