Semele, ENO at the Coliseum

Although Handel composed Semele as a dramatic oratorio, it s really a bawdy opera. It tells the story of Jupiter s infidelity to his Queen, Juno, and his subsequent affair with Semele who after having demanded that Jupiter appears in his god-like form, dies. Jupiter and Juno are re-united and all celebrate the fact that Semele will give birth to Bacchus the God of Wine! Such are the plots of eighteenth century operas.

Robert Carsen s new production arrives at the Coliseum via Aix en Provence and the Flanders Opera, and it is one of the most stylish and ultimately sexy shows to be seen here for many a season. Intended by Handel and his librettist as a satire on the monarchy of the day, Carsen s production proves that nothing much has changed since the 18th century. Semele rejects the idea of an earthly wedding and elopes with Jupiter to heaven to exist in celestial bliss with him. When this happens, courtiers rush in with newspapers sporting headlines such as ‘Jupiter and Semele: it s official , ‘By Jove! and ‘Where Eagles Dare - Semele is taken off by an eagle to be united with Jupiter incidentally - and the Queen is suitably annoyed. All these jokes work superbly within Carsen s framework and it s down to his skill in re-interpreting the story in this way and the exceptional cast ENO has assembled that make the three hours in the theatre so hugely enjoyable.

As Semele, Rosemary Joshua looks gorgeous - a blonde bombshell dressed in satin lingerie for most of the evening and singing with ravishing beauty. The Mirror Aria, “Myself I shall adore”, rightly stopped the show. No less impressive is John Mark Ainsley as a priapic Jupiter. His singing of “Where er you walk” is sung with such loving tenderness and care and is in many ways the vocal highlight of the evening. As he sings this to Semele, the whole of the stage turns into a cyclorama of stars - utterly breathtaking. The supporting cast is superb, with Susan Bickley relishing her role as the Queen - absolutely hilarious in green wellies and headscarf.. Sarah Connolly is luxury casting as Semele s sister whilst Janis Kelly nearly steals the show as an over the top lady in waiting. Excellent support in the pit too from an alert orchestra under Harry Bicket s meticulous baton.

Glorious music, glorious singing and a lavish production. What more could one ask for?

Keith McDonnell