Just in case there is any confusion Handel had not seen a mobile phone, headphones or neon lights when he wrote any of his operas. While he may have known about village halls (maybe) and no doubt visited classical art collections, I doubt if the type in this co-production between Mid Wales Opera and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in association with Academy of Ancient Music, would have meant much to him.
However, I do not doubt for a moment that a musician with an innate sense of drama, theatricality and terribly a la mode would have adored this very young, fresh, imaginative and entertaining show.
Ellen Williams and Chorus
Tom Smith and Ellen Williams
Handel is enjoying something of a revival in popularity in some of the big opera houses but is rarely seen in smaller touring productions and so I hope audiences for this show prove as accepting of the fact that the Baroque opera is often hoisted into new realms of fancy.
Semele is a simple tale when stripes down to it, a tale of vanity, lust, love, jealousy and revenge – it is opera after all, so we need to throw in death, one character dressing as another (rarely convincingly), love triangles, morality (usual dubious) and vast dollops of suspended belief.
Here the story is placed in contemporary times, the temple transformed into a village hall with what looks like a cross between a Masonic Lodge and Orange Order meeting (but with women) where quasi-religious activities still do occur. Replace Christian religion with Roman/ Greek gods and mythical figures, promiscuous Jupiter and jealous Juno, Iris, Somnus, and their interaction with those pesky mortals, Semele who wants her lover Jove to grant her immortality, her sister Ino who loves Athamus who is betrothed to Semele. The opera opens with the High Priest Cadmus preparing for Semele and Athamus’ wedding.
Semele obviously ins’t that keen and soon appears in bed with Jove and the glorious Endless pleasure, endless love” aria. Think the café scene in Harry Meets Sally. Juno has other ideas and in cahoots with Iris work how to end this tryst. It involved Juno in disguise as Ino persuading Semele to make Jupiter appear to her in the form of a god to grant her immortality. Basically, this is, as they know, fatal, but by now Semele is so bewitched by Juno/Ino’s praise that she is transfixed with her own beauty and too late realizes her error and her doom. The finale is Bacchus arises from Semele’s ashes – but not in this zany take.
There is lots of beautiful music and singing as the tale is told, the Arcadian aria “Where’er you walk” is gloriously sung and the scene full of jollity. In fact, it is hard to think of a recent production so jam-packed with clever modern twists and allusions that, overall, work well.
Our energetic and accomplished young performers don their costumes and zip along with Martin Constantine’s direction with gusto, inhabiting Grace Venning’s flexible, imaginative (yes, lots of imagination in this show) sets which are lit with plenty of neon lightning and flashes by Samuel Smith.
Ellen Williams sings and looks the part and “Myself I shall adore / If I persist in gazing” is a delight. It is hard to think the last time I heard her sing was as a member of the RWCMD student group performing the fugue from Falstaff as the finale at the Wales Theatre Awards one year ago. Tom Smith was a rather loveable Jupiter although it was hard to really imagine him as an omnipotent god.
There was fine singing and plenty of frivolity from the conspiring Juno and Iris sung and acted by Helen Stanley and Beatrice Acland. As Ino we have Dawn Burns playing the role with lots of angst and misery which somewhat suits her final pairing with the less than heroic figure of Athamus, sung by Daniel Keating-Roberts with nicely solid and secure work from Emyr Wyn Jones as Cadmus.
There were lovely cameo performances from Blaise Malaba, Somnus and a witty Apollo (think a well-known delivery service) from Matthew Clark delivering Semele’s ashes.
Go and discover all the zany interpretations from mobile phone selfies, neon lighting, a studio photoshoot, projections on screens, a silent disco – all good stuff.
Conductor Nicholas Cleobury sings along to himself while staying in control of the gears of this freewheeling opera with flair and finesse. This is his last work as company Artistic Director.
Touring to venues around Wales