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Endless pleasure

Covent Garden
06/25/2003 -  and 28 June, 2, 5, 8 11 July 2003
George Frideric Handel: Semele

Robin Blaze (Athamas), Stephanie Blythe (Ino/Juno), Ruth Ann Swenson (Semele), John Relyea (Cadmus/Somnus), Kurt Streit (Jupiter), Sally Matthews (Iris), Edgaras Montvidas (Apollo)

Charles Mackerras (conductor), John Copley (director)

Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra

John Copley's 1982 "Tiepolo" production of Semele might be the grandest production ever of a Handel work. It is a classic international house production from the days when decor was everything and the singers just had to stand and deliver and do the odd bit of business. Semele undoubtedly works as an opera even if it isn't one -- an interesting note in the programme links the effects described in the original published libretto for Handel's work to stage effects in the store at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, at the time of its production. And it is a sign of Handel's gift that it also works with flown-in international-class singers in some of the main roles. The production short changes the humour -- there are funny scenes and then there is the rest -- and skews the dramatic pace at the end in the interest of getting everybody out in three and a half hours -- when you have an Athamas as good as Robin Blaze, why not let him have his final aria? -- but little can damage the words and music, especially when the surtitles make up for singers' missing consonants and distorted vowels.

The Royal Opera orchestra are similarly far from historically informed but still, under Charles Mackerras, richly rewarding, coming close to the baroque ideal of "speaking" the music even on more forceful modern instruments. The chorus was oratorio-standard clear and accurate.

Ruth Ann Swenson as Semele is a fixture in this production, and she still does the cute diva thing effectively, though she is decidedly matronly these days. She also still has all the notes, and a gift for vocal parody that made her mugging in "Myself I shall adore" redundant. Stephanie Blythe was a mezzo sister to Swenson, vocally magnificent though still very young, and utterly Junoesque in stature though decidedly short of venom as Juno and of sentimental impact as Ino. Sally Matthews was a touch strident as Iris but showed a sure comic sense.

John Relyea as Somnus was on his own worth the price of admissions, sounding gorgeous and making his comic business into something worthwhile theatrically. He does, of course, have the most resonant sequence of the evening, in which it is acknowledged that there are only two things worth doing in the morning: rolling over in your pit and going back to sleep, or sex. Relyea also sounded pretty terrific as Cadmus. Robin Blaze didn't have much to work with as Athamas, and perhaps needed more direction to make something of the role, but he also sounded good and sang well.

Kurt Streit was outstanding as Jupiter. Like his Juno, he was an American in a role that was sung by a British singer when this production was last rolled out in San Francisco, such as the vagaries of the international opera circuit. Streit has vocal glamour, good looks of a kind and a strong presence on stage. While he could have made more of Jupiter's comic side, the character is enough of a prat to survive being played straight.

HE Elsom



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