George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)
Emma Pearson (soprano) – Semele
Amitai Pati (tenor) – Jupiter
Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano) – Juno, Ino
Paul Whelan (bass) – Cadmus, Somnus
Stephen Diaz (counter-tenor) – Athamas
Chelsea Dolman (soprano) – Iris
Sashe Angelovski (bass) – Priest
Holy Trinity Cathedral Choir
New Zealand Opera Chorus and Baroque Orchestra/Peter Walls
Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Jacqueline Coats (directors)
rec. 29 September 2021, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, New Zealand
extra features: cast gallery
Opus Arte OA1362D DVD 
Of all opera composers, Handel is probably the most susceptible – after poor Wagner, that is – to modern interpretations that seek to subject particular aspects of the work to the whims of a would-be innovative director. The results are not infrequently horrible, travesties of the dramatic intentions of the composer which add nothing to our enjoyment of the music beyond a demonstration of the sheer bad taste of the producer who is seeking to foist his ideas onto an unsuspecting audience. The fact that Handel’s operas lack the psychological depths of Wagner only makes the results more distressing, since these Regietheater productions cannot even pretend to boast a thread of uniform interpretation, picking and choosing instead from a whole range of more or less arbitrary exaggerations which may or may not vouchsafe any insights into the score, and frequently abandoning the singers to their own devices when attempting any attempt at characterisation of figures who can already teeter perilously close to cardboard caricatures. And indeed at first my heart sank at the prospect of a production of Semele which featured Jupiter riding around on a motor-bike, Semele giving a cabaret act and a modern wedding party with guests in various stages of inebriation and undress.
But in fact it all works very well, and the results are jolly rather than aggravating. When in Act One Semele is reluctantly about to be married to Athamas, it does not seem unreasonable that such a modern young lady is quite happy to abandon her betrothed at the altar and ride off on the pillion of the leather-clad bit of rough who clearly has already captured her affections. Indeed that is very much what William Congreve had outlined in his original scenario, if one simply shifts the action forward to the present day. The sleazy nature of Jupiter’s court, and Semele’s joyous abandonment to its dubious pleasures, is also exactly what was specified in the original scenario where Handel’s contemporary audiences drew parallels with the antics of the royal mistresses of George II. The actual setting of all of these goings-on in a real church (indeed, a cathedral!) lends an unexpected air of blasphemy to the proceedings, but then if the ecclesiastical authorities in New Zealand were content, who am I to raise objections?
Indeed were it not for the fact that this production had taken place in New Zealand, it could never have happened at all at the height of the worldwide quarantines of the CoVid pandemic; but since strict bans on travel to and from the islands had restricted the impact of the virus, singers were able to continue to perform in reasonably proximity to each other in live performances. Filmed excerpts, such as Semele riding triumphantly off on the back of Jupiter’s motorbike, help to break up the staged action as well as adding an element of very unsocial distancing. There are some drawbacks – the sound of the massed choirs can be somewhat diffuse, and the extraneous noises of revving engines occasionally mask Handel’s music – but the gains are also manifest. The small body of orchestral players, helped by the church acoustic, retain plenty of body under the enthusiastic baton of Peter Walls.
The singing cast, all of them of course locals, are really a very impressive bunch. Emma Pearson is a stellar Semele, sparkling in her coloratura in such show-stoppers as Myself I shall adore, and winsomely delicate when required. Her brief lament of remorse when her pride has led to her downfall was genuinely touching. As Jupiter, Amitai Pati is effective both as the rough biker, producing really heroic tones at times, and as the cheerful amoral half-stripped lover who delivered a marvellously spun delicate line in Where’er you walk. (The booklet includes credits for an “intimacy director” whose services were surely hardly needed.) Stephen Diaz is nicely effete as Athamas without becoming a total wimp, and Sarah Castle is a belter of a Juno, all outraged pride as the betrayed wife and spraying her coloratura around with venom. Paul Whelan makes much of his little cameo as Somnus, although his outraged father Cadmus is rather underplayed by the production.
There are some cuts of material in the opening Act, as is not uncommon in the theatre or indeed in recorded performances; the results thin out the somewhat tiresome episode where Athamas is rejected, a section which holds up the action dangerously before it has a real chance to get going. If one grants the proposition that Semele should be given as an opera rather than an oratorio – and Congreve certainly designed it as such, even though Handel avoided a stage presentation – then the pruning of the material is perhaps advisable.
The booklet, copiously illustrated in colour, contains a track listing but otherwise not even a synopsis. Some background on the production itself and the trials involved in mounting it during the pandemic might have been welcome. Subtitles come in English, German, Japanese and Korean only.
There is currently only one alternative video version of Semele listed in the catalogues – an earlier similarly abridged version by William Christie in an updated production by John Carsen and a mixture of Anglophone and foreign singers seems to have been deleted. That rival comes from Sir John Eliot Gardiner in a semi-staged performance dating from 2019, with some singing that has been criticised as inappropriately over-the-top, and substantial omissions and additions to Handel’s score. This new version engages more whole-heartedly with the dramatic elements in the music, and as such earns a recommendation even to those who might shrink from quite such an aggressive updating of the action. Indeed they might even enjoy themselves, in a naughty sort of way of course.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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Other production details
Tracy Grant Lord (set design)
Jo Kilgour (lighting design)
Anna Khellsdotter (costume design)
Audio format: dts-digital surround
Screen ratio: 16:9, all regions