A Witty and Intelligent Production finds Contemporary Relevance in Semele

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Semele: Mid Wales Opera, Soloists and Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music / Nicholas Cleobury, Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 8.2. 2017. (GPu)

Ellen Williams (Semele); photograph by Mathew Williams Ellis
Ellen Williams as Semele) (c) Mathew Williams Ellis

Semele – Ellen Williams
Juno – Helen Stanley
Jupiter – Tom Smith
Cadmus – Enyr Wyn Jones
Ino – Dawn Burns
Somnus – Blaise Malaba
Iris – Beatrice Acland
Athamas: Daniel Keating-Roberts
Apollo – Matthew Clark

Conductor – Nicholas Cleobury
Director – Martin Constantine
Designer – Grace Venning
Lighting Designer – Samuel Smith
Movement Director – Jennifer Fletcher
Academy of Ancient Music – Orchestra Leader, Pavlo Beznosiuk

In recent years, too many directors of opera (and, indeed, of Shakespeare) have striven rather desperately to assert the ‘relevance’ of the work to the modern world, rather overlooking, or choosing to ignore, the fact that by being about Love and/or Death (as most such works inherently are) they already have a potent ‘relevance’. Here, gratifyingly, was a production which didn’t ignore such universal kinds of relevance, but which also, without any sense of strain or special pleading, located and articulated a very specific and powerful kind of contemporary relevance in Handel’s opera/oratorio Semele.

Much as I admire Winton Dean’s two great books on Handel (Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques and Handel’s Operas), I have always found some of his observations on Semele unusually lacking in perception, as when he writes that in this work “[Handel] has no social or moral preoccupations; he accepts and enjoys the story”. I would argue, rather, that the opera’s ‘myth’ inescapably carries social and moral implications and that Handel (and the anonymous figure who adapted Congreve’s Semele for Handel’s use) are throughout preoccupied with a central moral issue. To put it in inevitably cruder language than Handel’s music does, this concern is with the paradox of human desires, simultaneously so blind and trivial, and yet irresistibly powerful. One might sum much of this up in the word ‘vanity’, with its twin meanings – self-regarding pleasure, and the insubstantiality and essential emptiness of so many human desires (“All is vanity” as Ecclesiastes puts it).

Semele herself is, of course, the central figure in this regard. Her Act III mirror aria (“Myself I shall adore, / If I persist in gazing, / No object sure before / Was ever half so pleasing”) is one of the great moments of self-regarding pride to be found amongst all the sacred monsters of opera. Her refusal (or inability?) to take account of Jupiter’s warnings (“Ah take heed what you press, / For beyond all redress, / Should I grant your request, I shall harm you”) when she insists that he should ‘come to her arms’, not in “human shape” but as himself, captures to perfection the self-destructiveness of human ‘vanity’ with chilling power.

The power of Martin Constantine’s production is that it shows Semele not as unique in her ‘vanity’, but as a young woman who is, rather, an emblem of her society. Choosing to make no attempt to show us the temples of the libretto, let alone the descent of Juno and Iris “in different machines” at the beginning of Act II and taking account of the fact that his cast consists of current or recent postgraduate students of the Masters in Opera Performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Constantine sets the opera now, very much amongst a generation fully committed to (some would say obsessed by) modern social media. This is a Thebes where tablets and laptops are everywhere used to view events happening elsewhere, and where mobile phones (and the digital cameras they contain) are universal – a land where the ‘selfie’ rules. Almost every character emerges as self-regarding, as driven by desire, even if to a less hubristic degree than Semele.

There is a delightfully witty, climactic statement of this theme in the staging of the closing moments of the opera. The libretto tells us that “A bright cloud descends and rests upon Mount Cithaeron, which, opening, discovers Apollo seated in it as the God of Prophecy”. Here, ‘Apollo’ was a man delivering a package, a man with nothing divine about him, who made a rather hidden entrance behind the on-stage chorus. The happiness promised in the libretto:

Apollo comes, to relieve your care,
And future happiness declare.
From Semele’s ashes a phœnix shall rise,
The joy of this earth, and delight of the skies:
A God he shall prove
More mighty than Love,
And sighing and sorrow for ever prevent

turned out to be a delivery of new mobile phones for each of the Thebans onstage, whose emotions were immediately soothed by these new ‘toys’. Everyone was rapidly busy taking selfies, many of them with the urn containing Semele’s ashes! The profound mythological resonances of Apollo’s speech, which survived almost unchanged (there is some slight abridgement) from Congreve’s text are side-stepped, incomprehensible in our modern world.

This was billed as “a co-production between Mid Wales Opera and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama”. Most of the production staff came from the College, director Martin Constantine being Jane Hodge International Chair for Directing, and designer Grace Venning being a student on the College’s BA in Design for Performance. In terms of performers, the particular incarnation of the Academy of Ancient Music on duty had professional leaders for each section (including such early music luminaries as violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Bojan Čičič and oboist Leo Duarte), supplemented by instrumentalists from the College. Conducted by the very experienced Nicholas Cleobury, coming to the end of his time as Artistic Director of Mid Wales Opera, the result was some generally crisp and fluent playing, marked by a genuine consideration of the needs of the singers.

Of the singers, all but two are currently students on the College’s MA in Opera Performance, the exceptions being Emyr Wyn Jones and Dawn Burns, recent graduates from the same MA, now launched on professional careers. Indeed, a number of those who are still postgraduate students have some professional experience. Naturally, most of these voices have yet to reach anything like full maturity, but what we heard didn’t need to be excused or condescended to as ‘only a student performance’.

Helen Stanley, as Juno, a forceful Goth in appearance, sang with all the power and jealous rage that the part requires. As Jupiter, Tom Smith doesn’t perhaps have the most beautiful of tenor voices, but he sang, throughout, with impressive and perceptive attention to text, and acted with conviction. The Semele of Ellen Williams was convincingly self-absorbed and she sang with both grace and agility. Her interpretations of both ‘Endless Pleasure’ and ‘Myself I shall adore’ were among the highlights of the evening and revealed distinct promise. Dawn Burns as Ino sang with power and a good sense of style though, as yet, her acting leaves something to be desired. Cadmus is not a role which offers much, in terms of character, to the performer and even Emyr Wyn jones, a natural creature of the stage, couldn’t give him much life beyond his securely sung words. Blaise Malaba made his mark as a resonant-voiced Somnus. Due to illness, countertenor Daniel Keating-Roberts was less able to make a strong mark as Athamus, who had audible difficulties, though there were also a few passages which showed that there was a very good voice in there.

On leaving, I didn’t feel certain that I had been listening to any prospective ‘greats’ of the opera world, but I had no doubt at all that a number of this cast, with the right guidance and a proper degree of patience, should go on to successful stage careers.

Glyn Pursglove

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