Michael Tanner

Myths and morals

But dramatically it was a mess, with the action and scenery failing to cohere

Myths and morals
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Garsington Opera, in rep until 4 July

Handel’s Semele, one of the most enjoyable operas (or opera-oratorio, if you insist) in the repertoire, is, in its upshot, an enchanting display of thoughtless hedonism and a warning about what may happen, or even what is bound to happen, if you take hedonism too far. Wormsley, to which Garsington Opera moved several years ago — this was my first visit — seems the ideal place to stage it. The opening of the season was a perfect early-summer evening, the countryside looking gorgeous, refreshments and supper delicious and prompt, the atmosphere friendly, and the performance in many ways excellent. Who could have left it without thinking how marvellous it had almost all been, but how unwise it would be to expect most of life to give such pleasure, or indeed to think that it would be a good idea if it did?

Almost everyone, I suspect. For Semele, its text derived from Congreve, with Pope responsible for ‘Where’er you walk’, is mythology with a stern admixture of morality, though in terms of musical content hedonism is the obvious winner. Certainly, the melodies one comes away from it humming are Jupiter’s seductive one and Semele’s heedless ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ and ‘Myself I shall adore, if I persist in gazing’. It is as amusing as Offenbach’s mythological send-ups, but its targets are almost always us. So the production needs to steer a delicate course between diverting us and making us think, even if not very hard. Anniliese Miskimmon’s wasn’t, in that way, or in several others, a complete success, though it was almost always entertaining. Together with the designer Nicky Shaw she concocted a time- and space-travelling affair that was sometimes witty, sometimes serviceable, sometimes tiresome. The opening, with Semele resisting marriage to Athamas, was distinctly low church, a sparse congregation bewildered by the bride-in-white’s fleeing the altar. Thanks to Jupiter’s impatience, she was wafted up to the eternal regions by a large team of cabin crew. Wings of various kinds sprouted on the performers, who included a group of cute, very small children who could only draw gasps of delight.

Meanwhile a first-rate musical performance was taking place, Jonathan Cohen eliciting lively, warm playing from a reasonably large orchestra, and Heidi Stober a lovely and lovely-sounding Semele; she twisted her knee badly in the interval after Act One, but it didn’t seem to affect her performance. I have seen even finer performers of the role, especially Rosemary Joshua, but Stober is an artist to watch. When we reached the realm of the gods, it was immediately to show that it is no kind of paradise. Juno is in labour with her eighth child, so who better to play the part than Christine Rice, herself pregnant — as almost always. While singing magnificently, she managed to give a graphic portrayal of the middle stages of labour, with the god Somnus administering gas. Rice is such a star that she has to work quite hard not to seem one. Her formidable low notes are almost up, or down, there with Marilyn Horne’s. No wonder she intimidates Jupiter, though surely he should, even when disguised as a mortal, look rather more alluring than Robert Murray, who was dressed in a drab City suit. His lyrical passages were winning, his commanding ones less so. There wasn’t a lot of electricity in his relationship with Semele, at any stage. All the other roles were well taken, and the chorus, about 25 of them, was superb, with an unusually large part in the proceedings.

Take any quarter-hour of this production, and it would be hard to fault. And the consistently high standard of the musical performance ensured that there were no longueurs. But dramatically it was a mess, with the action and scenery (much of it delightful) failing to cohere or even, sometimes, to be intelligible. Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much but if you are convinced that there is more, much more, to Semele than charm, then you would be frustrated and hoping for something more cumulative. The tragic conclusion, however, is well managed: not only is Semele withered by Jupiter’s appearance in propria persona, but Stober is replaced by a hideous old woman, a poignant moment that makes the arrival of Bacchus all the more ambiguous.