Semele is something of an anomaly among Handel’s works. Written after he had abandoned opera for oratorio, but using a libretto by Congreve written years earlier for an unproduced opera by somebody else, it was performed “after the manner of an Oratorio” in February 1744. The oratorio-going public, however, stayed away, apparently disapproving of its pagan subject and frank depiction of sexual desire. Handel never revived it, and choirs have rarely taken it up since. In more recent times it seems to have found a more congenial home on stage, but it’s far from certain that this was Handel’s intention all along. He recast Congreve’s libretto to give a bigger role to the chorus than is the case in any of his true operas, and his elaborate choral movements present a challenge to stage directors (as well as to the singers who have to memorise them).
Cambridge plays an important part in the history of the piece. Stanford conducted the first performance since the eighteenth century in 1878, and the first theatrical production followed here in 1925. So it was good to see this latest stage revival in the very suitable surroundings of Downing College’s Howard Theatre, built in the style of a Georgian playhouse to the designs of Francis and Quinlan Terry in 2010.
Director Max Mason wisely did not adopt a togas-and-tunics look, instead staging the piece in modern dress. The opening temple scene at least was set in what he described as a “high Anglican church”. It was not entirely clear whether this location was intended to continue for the rest of the piece, though the re-appearance of the chorus in cassocks at the end of Act II suggested that it might have been. No matter – Semele may deal in part with gods and goddesses but they are motivated by very human urges, and these come through wherever the characters find themselves and whatever they are wearing.
Nonetheless the plot is driven by supernatural events that only gods and goddesses can deliver. No-one would now expect the elaborate stage machinery which Congreve calls for at those turning points in the drama even if it could be realised. One does need something, however, to motivate the next stage of the story and this was not always provided, leaving the motivation of the characters, whose moods sometimes changed for no adequately explained reason, unclear. Conversely, the production sometimes sought to add interest to the long da capo arias with movement and reaction from the characters not singing. Sometimes this was effective, but more often it was distracting (and noisy) – and neither Handel’s music nor the singers’ performances seemed to me to need it.
In the title role, Ailsa McTernan seemed a little tentative initially, her voice not always carrying over the band in softer passages. Once transported to Mount Olympus she grew in confidence (as one would) and her rendition of the pivotal aria “Myself I shall adore” in which she moved from modesty to enthusiastic self-love, posing with Juno’s magic mirror as if taking a selfie, was the high point of the evening, with the winsome coloratura dispatched with effortless ease. As her Olympian lover, James Gant was a shade too gentlemanly and diffident to convince as the sexually voracious king of the Gods, but his pure light tenor was always a pleasure to listen to, and he treated us to some suitably celestial high B flats in “Where’er you walk”. The role of Semele’s sister Ino, hopelessly in love with her intended brother-in-law Athamas, was taken by Hannah Dienes-Williams. She raised the dramatic intensity noticeably from the moment of her entrance in the first scene, and then provided some comic relief when trying to engage the sympathy of the oblivious object of her affections in the ensuing duet. As nice-but-dim Athamas, Alasdair Austin pranced about a bit too much in his first number, but his sweet counter-tenor tone did much to explain what Ino saw in him. Given these two engaging performances, I thought it a shame that the short passage of recitative near the end in which Ino finally gets her man was cut.
There is very little room for even a Handel-sized band in the Howard Theatre, and Adrian Tsui made do with strings, harpsichord and a solitary oboe. I missed the timpani, which have an important dramatic as well as musical role in this piece, but the nimble and well-balanced playing from the strings, with a particularly lovely sound from the cellos, did much to compensate. On the first night there seemed some uncertainty as to whether to pause for applause or not at the end of arias, which impaired the dramatic flow a little in the second half.
If this production did not entirely convince me that Semele is a work for the stage rather than the concert hall, it provided a welcome chance to hear some very promising musicians perform what remains one of Handel’s most varied and delightful scores. I hope this will not be the only time we hear Handel in this venue – how about Hercules next year?