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The thin slice

Theatre Royal
02/19/2005 -  and 22, 26 February, 1 4 March 2005
George Frideric Handel: Semele
Michael George (Priest of Juno/Cadmus/Somnus), Arnon Zlotnik (Athamas), Lisa Milne (Semele), Susan Bickley (Ino/Juno), Kate Royal (Iris), Jeremy Ovenden (Jupiter), Hilton Marlton (Apollo)

Christian Curmyn (conductor), John La Bouchardière (director)

Handel presented "oratorios" when the punters stopped wanting to pay for Italian opera. It is in a way appropriate that Scottish Opera should include Handel's Semele in a season after which it finds itself unable to afford main-stage opera. (All the company's technical staff have been made redundant.) Scottish Opera's money comes mainly from government: the money problem arises partly because the devolved Scottish parliament has different priorities from the previous United Kingdom funding body, the Arts Council. But the crisis raises the first-principle question, what is a national opera company for? There is an audience for mainstream opera, which these days includes Semele: the house was almost full for the first performance, although it was technically a preview because most reviewers were in Cardiff for the new production of Wozzeck in Welsh National Opera's shiny new home in the Millennium Centre.

The contrast between Wales and Scotland, indeed, is striking: Cardiff found millennium money to build venues for its two main entertainments, rugby and opera, and, while it is easy enough anyway to keep the Millennium Stadium in use, especially while Wembley is under construction, the existence of the Millennium Centre means that it would be too embarrassing for Welsh National Opera to fizzle, so ways must be found to keep both the Centre and the opera going. Yet both Edinburgh and Glasgow are destination cities – Glasgow now has superb shopping and restaurants as well as its famous museums and architecture, and this reviewer would rather go there than Cardiff any day – but they did not have millennium projects for large-scale opera and music theatre, and have comparatively little provision for it.

Scottish Opera may be in extremis, but they have again managed to put on a good show on a sniff of greasepaint. As with the 2003 Ring cycle, which ironically cost enough to contribute to the current financial crisis and looked absurdly lavish in contrast with this Semele, imagination and pure talent turn out to be a fair substitute for production values, and the need for ingenuity in not spending money has produced something of intrinsic interest. John La Bouchardière's production seems to start from the problem present since its first performance of whether Semele is really an oratorio or an opera. Not only is it secular and filthy, like the best operas and unlike religious-by-definition oratorios, but it also has built in (by their presence in the printed libretto supplied to the original audience) stage effects based on but far in excess of those available in the best theatres of the time. The audience's imagination cost Handel the producer nothing and gave them the best visual experience possible. Yet the shape and pacing of Semele are undoubtedly those of a work that is not meant to be staged, as shown, for example, by the purely poetic progression from erotic crisis to the music of the spheres at the end of act two, engineered by Handel to replace a pastoral tableau vivant with words and music of comparable mythic power.

La Bouchardière's brilliant core idea is that the mortals are performing an oratorio while the gods are in a baroque opera. Their interactions are in a nebulous world of vague projections in which the only concrete object is the enormous pillow that Semele and Jupiter use as a bed. So the disrupted wedding is also a disruption of the oratorio format – the singers who sing Semele and Ino become visibly distraught, the bass tries to calm things down and the chorus respond to Jove's thunder by getting up from their chairs and rushing to the back of the stage. Like the chorus of initiates in Aristophanes' Frogs, it's cheap but effective: the chorus and singers seemed mostly to be wearing their own concert dress. The gods, in contrast, had a fair approximation of baroque theatre costumes – Juno and Iris were comically wide and high – and used suitable gestures. There was a problem of how to treat Semele in all this, and the decision to keep her in concert black until she sees herself in the deceitful mirror and believes that she looks divine was probably the right one, although her babaciousness and bimbohood were severely undermined in the process, and from some angles she risked looking like a beached whale on the pillow-cloud. The chorus in heaven had authentic-looking monochrome eighteenth-century costumes, which they resumed at the end by removing parts of their concert dress, suggesting perhaps that the divine or theatrical within everyone is revealed by Bacchus, though you can take that idea in several ways.

The mortal chorus indulged in some director-induced shenanigans involving ice-cream (presumably cheaper than champagne) and sex that recalled Robert Carsen's production for the ENO; the gods in contrast had no business at all except their conventional gestures. Those familiar with Carsen's production, in which Susan Bickley also appeared as Juno, might have been reminded how well much of the business worked, and how much work it takes for singers to communicate the rhetoric of arias to a modern audience.

Bickley, a wonderfully theatrical performer as well as a great singer, replaced Carsen's fidgets and tantrums in Semele's boudoir during "Myself I shall adore" with a single straight-to-camera malevolent look towards the audience at the end of the aria, to equal effect. She was effortlessly scary, and batty, as Juno and touchingly confused as Ino, although her vocal assurance and mature presence rather overpowered the attractive young Israeli counter-tenor Arnon Zlotnik who sang Athamas. His role was even more thankless than usual, as he had only his scenes with Ino, and he didn't even get her at the end as they cut the brief scene of her return. This made the characterization of Ino easier – did Mercury really tell her that Jove required her to marry Athamas once Semele was out of the way? – but her and Athamas' sentimental confusions are never resolved. Bickley had the experience and skill to make something of this, but the sweet-voiced Zlotnik didn't, and he didn't get much help from the production.

Lisa Milne as Semele didn't always achieve more than an endearing chunky naughtiness, or get to grips with the overall shape of her big arias, although she was powerful in her brief act one arioso scena and her final remorse-and-death scena, in which she strikingly showed that she realised she was dying by throwing arise her yellow baroque gown to reveal her mortal's black frock again. Milne's voice is lovely, and her singing is assured, but she probably needed a lot more direction in a production like this where there is nothing except the singer to do the work of communication. Kate Royal had things easier as Iris, as her gestures were easy, although there was some inexplicable business in which she seemed to take a lech to Pasithea (the acrobat Isabelle Woywode, who did some entertaining flying without any expensive help from Foy). Royal didn't quite get the words over, but she also has a good voice and forceful stage presence.

Jeremy Ovenden, who was allowed to roll about on the ground as Jupiter in priapic agony, had an appropriate touch of Rory Bremner's Oliver Letwin and was impressively funny and strange. He also sang impeccably. In the Scottish context, one can only wish that Kenneth McKellar in his prime had sung Jupiter. The younger Timothy Robinson showed that an Irish tenor's beauty of tone is exactly what is needed for the sensual fantasy of "Where'er you walk", which Ovenden also song gorgeously. Interestingly, in the past Ovenden has seemed uncomfortably mannered in Handel, but here his punctiliously with notes and ornaments seemed exactly right. With Bickley, his was the outstanding performance.

Michael George, always reliable and butch, was suitably wooden as the oratorio mortally and surprisingly rude and funny as Somnus. In a certain frame of mind, you can find that Semele is mostly about wanting to fuck when you wake up, and Robbie Coltrane could effectively reprise his character in Mona Lisa as Somnus. George's baroque antics in the semi-darkness would not have made anyone blush, but combined with the drowsy sensuousness of his aria, there was no doubt what was in his mind, or glands.

The Scottish Opera chorus was well rehearsed and reasonably well blended, if not particularly expressive. The orchestra, playing modern instruments, rattled around in the Wagner-sized pit, metaphorically speaking, and made a sound that was far from idiomatic, perhaps assisted by the echo chamber under the first tier of the horseshoe-shaped theatre. But, under the direction of the highly-experienced young Handelian conductor Christian Curmyn, the didn't let the Sturm and Drang of their timbre affect their phrasing, and shaped the music precisely.

HE Elsom



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