If directors will insist on staging Handel oratorios as if they’re operas, it makes sense to pick Semele, which is practically an opera already. Under George II, opera was banned in London theatres during Lent (too exotick, too irrational), so Handel slipped his best material past the authorities by presenting it in concert format, set to biblical stories. Possibly by 1744 he was getting a bit careless, because there’s nothing remotely biblical about lovely, pouting Semele’s 24/7 shagathons (‘endless pleasure’, apparently) with King of the Gods and all-round studmuffin Jove. Handel’s sometime collaborator Charles Jennens denounced Semele as ‘no oratorio but a bawdy opera’: all the tunes, double the outrage.
It’s fun, in short, and that presents an opportunity and a problem for Adele Thomas, director of this new staging at Glyndebourne. The opportunity: Semele has a musical richness and variety that Handel often denied himself, and a plot (the libretto is based on Congreve) that’s as sly, as playful and as genuinely raunchy as the old Saxon ever really got. The problem? Even the most imaginative directors can struggle to shake the delusion that their job is didactic – that they’re duty-bound to send us home with a clunking ‘but seriously’ sitting like a lead weight on an otherwise enchanted evening.
That was the weirdest thing about Thomas’s Semele – the dutiful tut-tutting that framed an absolute romp. Act One plays out on a slagheap against overcast skies. Fair enough; we’re contrasting mundane reality with the splendour of love, Olympian-style. But Act Two’s heavenly love nest is an equally grotty brownfield site, this time with undergrowth. By the end, Thomas has the chorus succumbing to a collective nervous breakdown and Semele’s buzzkill sister Ino (Stephanie Wake-Edwards) angrily resisting her heaven-sent wedding.