The ways of gods
11/18/2004 - and 20, 23, 26 November, 1, 16, 18 December 2004
George Frideric Handel: Semele
Iain Paterson (Cadmus), Carolyn Sampson (Semele), Anne Marie Gibbons (Ino), Robin Blaze (Athamas), Ian Bostride (Jupiter), Patricia Bardon (Juno), Janis Kelly (Iris), Paul Reeves (Somnus)
Laurence Cummings (conductor), Robert Carsen (original director), John La Bouchardière (revival director)
ENO orchestra and chorus
Robert Carsen's Semele was first produced at Aix in 1996 and, in its first revival at the ENO, it still looks fresh as a daisy. And, though it would be difficult to improve on the cast of the 1999 ENO version -- Rosemary Joshua in the title role, one of her trademarks, Susan Bickley as a hilarious, queenly (as in ER) Juno, John Mark Ainsley vocally exquisite as Jupiter -- this generally younger cast has different virtues. This show should run and run, although, alas, there are only seven performances this season.
The production reputedly originally included a joke about Princess Diana, and the associated depiction of Juno, complete with brown handbag and under-the-chin headscarf, survives. Prince Charles' recent leaked memo, in which he seemed to assert that people should know their place and not aim for heights that are beyond them, expressed ideas that Congreve framed more elegantly in the final chorus of Semele and added a new note of topicality. But it is hard to believe that Congreve's often very black comedy is purely conservative: the grotesquerie that Carsen brings out in the gods at first looks merely like a comic nod at British royalty, in 1706 (when the libretto was written), 1744 (when it was first performed) or now; but it seems to suggest the inscrutable, if occasionally comic, arbitrariness of Kafka's quasi-deities in the castle or the judicial process, like Jupiter-as-thunderbolt cosmic forces that can't be argued with rather than moral imperatives. Under the enormous humour and charm of the libretto and Handel's music there is a hint of the tragic resignation that is also found in the chorus that ends the second act of Jephtha: "whatever is, is right" (and all you can do is endure it).
The darkness is present throughout the production in the black walls of the set, beautifully transformed into the night sky for "But hark, the heav'nly sphere turns round", and lit mainly through a massive door on one side, and in the subdued but superbly elegant costumes of the chorus. (Although diverse in height, breadth and colouring, they all amazingly look great in the 1950s couture.) The initial anxiety of the interrupted wedding, further confused by Ino's confession to Athamas that she loves him, never quite seemed to go away. Carolyn Sampson, vocally effortless and impeccable, was always slightly vulnerable as Semele, never looking quite right in the glazed wig and structured dresses, even the deshabille, although at times remniscent of Marilyn Munroe and obviously comfortable in her skin on stage. She might almost have been the Marquis de Sade's Justine, whose death occurs in a somewhat similar way, just as the probably duplicitous Ino, dressed in suave black evening wear throughout, might be Juliette, although Anne Marie Gibbons seemed too nice and sounded too sweet -- she has a fine middle-weight mezzo that may well go far. Patricia Bardon as Juno revelled in the comedy (teapot, Scotch, green wellies and hottie packed for the speedy flight) and was wonderfully high handed as well as vocally glorious, with every word audible. She made a great double act with Janis Kelly, returning as Iris the scatty PA.
Ian Bostridge, tall and lanky, and greenery-yallery in style, might be a strange human form for Jupiter to choose, but he turned out to have an impressive, slightly melancholy, presence in the role, and actually seemed to enjoy making out with Semele, although of course it's all acting. His singing was also quite lovely, so well judged that you didn't notice the flawless musical decisions, and finding both lightness and sonority where appropriate. Iain Paterson was a suitably authoritative Cadmus, as usual merged with the Priest, and Paul Reeve sounded glorious as Somnus but wasn't quite as disgusting as Graeme Danby, for whom he stood in. Robin Blaze was an unusually glamorous Athamas, and it would have been good to have more than one of his arias.
Laurence Cummings made the music sound elegantly sensuous, and supported the singers beautifully, choosing clarity rather than fullness of sound in the huge house. The ENO chorus were on top form in a work where they seem to have a great deal of fun.