Posts Tagged ‘ Handel ’

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

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