Handel: Semele

Royal Academy Opera

Royal Academy of Music, London, 17 November 20093.5 stars

SemeleThe most impressive ingredient of the Royal Academy Opera's Semele is its musicality throughout the performance. Sir Charles Mackerras, surely the greatest Handelian of our time, utilised his immense knowledge and experience, and the young singers and instrumentalists of the Royal Academy of Music responded magnificently. This was not only a deeply moving meeting of the old master – Sir Charles just turned 84 – and youth, but also a memorable musical experience to cherish.

The staging was less successful. With seven additional (although silent) characters thrown into the plot, director Anna Sweeney created an opera within the opera. Thus the performance of Semele takes place in the castle grounds of the estate's owner, whose wife hires the performers (including the chorus) and sings the role of Juno.

Although it is clear from the outset that we are watching an opera within the opera, the sub-plot concerning the seven added characters is far from clear. We can see an audience of seven watching and occasionally reacting, but – unless one reads the programme notes – it is not obvious that Semele's plot mirrors real-life intrigues on the estate. 

The function of the chorus, sitting on stage throughout, is muddled. Occasionally they interact with Semele's characters but never with characters from the sub-plot. Do they belong to the estate owner's wife of the sub-plot or are they the Greek chorus in Semele? I hasten to add that I am glad that the chorus and seven other (mute) singers are on stage throughout because they will never have better tutoring in Handel than during these performances with Sir Charles Mackerras. However, it is unlikely that Sweeney's directional concept included such sentiments.

Sweeney's characterisation of the Handelian principal characters was well-crafted and sensitive to the music. The singers themselves, with couple of exceptions, were tentative (that is, nervous) to start with but all grew in confidence and statue during the performance. The hugely demanding part of Semele received a virtuoso performance by Lithuanian soprano Lauryna Bendziunaite. Mexican tenor Roberto Gomez Ortiz was a convincing and highly musical Jupiter. Alto Kate Symonds-Joy delivered a deeply-felt, moving portrayal (with crystal-clear diction throughout) of Ino and alto Laura Kelly delighted with her expressive qualities as well as confident sense of humour in the role of Juno.   

The stage design is minimal but appropriate; the three-tier costumes consist of pleasing baroque (opera plot), possibly 20th century country estate (sub-plot), and all black suit/dresses for the chorus.  

The orchestra sounded more authentic than a professional baroque opera orchestra, which I heard a few weeks ago. Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Academy of Music triumphed.

By Agnes Kory

Photo credit: Mark Whitehouse


Judith HowarthRelated articles:

Review: ETO performs Tolomeo during the Handelfest
Preview: ETO performs Teseo during the Handelfest
Review: Royal Academy Opera performs Haydn's La fedelta premiata
Review: Joyce DiDonato's Handel CD