George Frideric Handel - Semele
Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe - 2017
Christopher Moulds, Floris Visser, Jennifer France, Ed Lyon, Dilara Baştar, Katharine Tier, Terry Wey, Edward Gauntt, Hannah Bradbury, Yang Xu, Ilkin Alpay
Opera Platform - May 2017
If you consider it in simple dramatic terms, not a great deal happens in Semele. It's a tale of Jupiter up to his old tricks again, spiriting down to mingle with mortals and have his pick of whatever attractive lady takes his fancy, much to the displeasure of his long-suffering wife, Juno. Based on the classical legend from Ovid's Metamorphoses, there's a basic moral about Semele's pride in consorting with the gods and thinking herself their equal, but primarily it's a poetic subject, with any relatable human context submerged in flowery language and mythological matters of the gods.
The range of sentiments and the manner in which they are couched however provide perfect material for Handel to demonstrate what he could achieve at this stage in his career. Semele's subject matter and treatment would make it more suitable for the English oratorio format than the Italian opera form that the composer had by this stage abandoned. The story's distinct scenes offer a variety of musical responses that Handel undertakes with grace, wit and invention. Producing the non-religious subject of Semele as an oratorio for the Lent season of 1744 stirred up some resentment and controversy, but Handel was never one to let tradition overrule musical imperatives and his own desire progress and develop the music-drama form.
Despite Handel's wonderful variety of musical moods - and a few famous arias - Semele can still be a little dry in its subject matter, in its repetition of banal statements and its delivery of solemn declamations, so it undoubtedly helps if you can enliven a dramatic presentation and bring the gods a little more down-to-earth. The Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe production directed by Floris Visser does that in a very clever manner that updates the context of the story of Semele while at the same time retaining near complete fidelity towards character and purpose. Just as importantly, the production fully captures the essential spirit and charm of Handel's musical arrangements for the work. It's not profound, but it's certainly clever, charming and - with Handel's music behind it all - enchanting.
A lovely little dramatic play over the intro sets the scene quite perfectly in the Karlsruhe production. Here Jupiter is a philandering American President with an eye for the ladies (take your pick - most of the costume designs and Ed Lyon's appearance suggest JFK era, but the use of technology and a Monica Lewinsky reference in the closing scene give it a more timeless application). Recently inaugurated, it's not long before the first lady Juno catches the President carrying on with his secretary Semele (daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes, who no doubt has the influence to get her a post at the White House as an intern). Furious, the President's wife arranges for the threat to be neutralised by arranging a marriage for the young woman to Athamas, a promising young military officer.
Act I of the oratorio/opera then opens with the familiar setting of the unfortunate playing out of those wedding arrangements, the somewhat drawn-out wedding situation at least engaging the interest in seeing how this modern twist can be made to fit in with the mythological content and whether any real-world message can as a consequence cut through the old-fashioned trappings of antiquity. With numerous inventive responses - I imagine that a certain amount of credit for that must go to the creative and meaningful development of the dramaturgy by Klaus Bertisch - the Karlsruhe production does that very well and makes it thoroughly entertaining into the bargain.
To cite just a few examples, the wedding of Act I has a timeless feel, with character types and situations that are much more recognisable in this context. In place of the thunderbolts that herald Jupiter's intervention, we see instead the President directing a SWAT operation that provides just as much storm and drama without the hokey imagery of gods descending on clouds and chariots. Nor are there dragons with a "thousand fiery eyes" that guard Semele's hidden mountain retreat, but a video of an armaments test of new helicopter technology by Juno's PA Iris achieves much the same impact and effect.
Aside from the clever technical solutions provided, Floris Visser also ensures that the characters also respond appropriately to this world view, without straying too far away from the essence of what the drama is striving to convey. Juno and Iris provide the most fun, knocking back a bottle of Jack Daniels as they plot revenge on Jupiter. Somnus, the God of Sleep who they engage/blackmail to help them storm Jupiter's hideaway, is a dozy porn-addicted computer geek who will hack the system in return for sexual favours. The magic mirror that Juno uses to appeals to Semele's vanity is a camera, and it's also at the hands of the press - flashbulbs replacing bolts of lightning - that Semele is undone and realises too late her mistake in consorting with the 'gods' who play by their own rules with little thought for the consequences it has for 'ordinary' people.
This all brings a welcome sense of fun and significance that is wholly appropriate for the work, but it doesn't neglect the greater variety of mood and emotions that Handel was able to develop outside the restrictions of the Italian opera format. There's tenderness in the situations of Athamas and Ino; there's a jaunty smugness to Juno and Iris at the success of their plotting and of course; there's considerable breadth of character to Semele and the experience she undergoes beyond the normal fluctuations between joy and despair. Visibly pregnant at the end of Act I, with a couple of fantasy dream sequences illustrating her illusions, her predicament is made rather more meaningful and clearer than their child mystically arising out of her ashes at the conclusion (the birth of Bacchus no doubt a boon for those two dipsos Juno and Iris).
Christopher Moulds conducts the score with the requisite attention to pacing, rhythm and mood, perhaps smoothing the edges out a little, but it's hard to determine that from a compressed audio stream. The singing too holds up its side of the deal that is required to make this production work so well, with engaging performances throughout. Jennifer France is a lively and assertive Semele, not just a floozy for the President, impressive in her characterisation of the role, which is sung wonderfully. Ed Lyon, more presidential than god-like, gives an engaging performance; Terry Wey's lovely alto countertenor brings a measure of sweetness and sympathy for Athamas; Katharine Tier and Hannah Bradbury make a great team and provide some of the most entertaining moments as Juno and Iris. The demands of the English diction are a challenge for Dilara Baştar and her Ino sounds overly harsh at first, but she comes into the role well.
Links: Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Opera Platform