Komische Oper Berlin’s Semele is significantly greater than the sum of its considerable parts

GermanyGermany Handel, Semele: Soloists, Chorus (chorus director: David Cavelius) and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin / Konrad Junghänel (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 18.12.2019 (MB)

Komische Oper Berlin’s Semele (c) Monika Rittershaus


Director – Barrie Kosky
Spielleitung – David Merz
Set designs – Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon
Costumes – Carla Teti
Dramaturgy – Johanna Wall
Lighting – Alessandro Carletti


Jupiter – Stuart Jackson
Juno – Ezgi Kutlu
Cadmus – Philipp Meierhöfer
Semele – Sydney Mancasola
Ino – Karolina Gumos
Athamas – Terry Wey
Iris – Georgina Melville
Somnus, Priest – Evan Hughes

Oh, terror and astonishment!
Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken we like meteors err:
Toss’d through the void, by some rude shock we’re broke,
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

William Congreve’s libretto — to my mind, perhaps the finest Handel set — makes clear what is at stake in Semele. So too, working along strikingly similar lines, does Barrie Kosky’s production. That one comes to appreciate the achievement of both, in collaboration, of course, with one of Handel’s finest dramatic scores and a highly talented cast, when all has drawn or is drawing to a close is surely just as it should be. The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk; here, though, it is a dusk and, possibly, a dawn formed by Semele’s ashes, more of a prequel than one might initially have expected — certainly than I expected — to Henze’s The Bassarids, also staged here at the Komische Oper Berlin in an excellent production by Kosky. Kosky had taken over the production when the originally scheduled director, Laura Scozzi, had fallen ill. Presumably many of the designs were already in place, but they are put to good use. Speculating over who did what is fruitless; either one knows or one does not, and ultimately, even if one knows, so what? What I saw certainly sense to me, minus the occasional irritant that is more concerned with style than anything substantial.

To return to the cited chorus text, however, also returns us to the beginning — and thus to the overall set design that frames the action as a whole. We are invited into an eighteenth-century building, some of the room’s detail clearly apparent, other aspects left for us and for the drama to fill in. An ash heap, reminiscent perhaps of a mound in Kosky’s Castor et Pollux signals, at least in retrospect, where the action is heading, yet also, more importantly, represents the traumatic intrusion of the gods into the world of men and women. That tragedy of a genuine love between Jupiter and Semele, as opposed to the comedy of Semele’s vanity and comeuppance, of a love that is essentially fated never to be, lies at the heart of the production. Adopting the time-honoured procedure — somewhat Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe — of entering, in this case, being dragged through a fireplace portal to an alternative world, Semele briefly attains happiness, as notably does Jupiter, albeit in something destined not to last. The cosmic Toryism — think of Pope’s Essay on Man — that decrees all shall now their place in a well-ordered universe will not permit such a transgression for long.

Nor, of course, will its guardian Juno, here less a wronged woman, though at some level remaining that, but a woman with agency, desires, and power, all of which she will use in self-defence and attack. So do she and Iris, in a highly erotic scene, bring Somnus into play. Sacerdotal purple for her dress nonetheless makes clear her status, as does the same colour for Jupiter’s socks, which betray his true nature even when he has otherwise taken human form. And so, when tricked into demanding Jupiter assume his true, thunderbolt nature, Semele seals her fate, becoming ash, as we see had all along been foretold. She sits above the fireplace, her status reassumed, a ghost — as too, ironically, are Jupiter and Juno — at the wedding of Ino and Athamas, with the proviso, signalled by Congreve and the priestly chorus, that Bacchus will ultimately ‘crown the joys of love’. Or will he? As we know, things never turn out quite as they should — and the tragedy of The Bassarids awaits.

Sydney Mancasola shone in the title role, the whole performance building up to a bravura performance of her final air, ‘No, no, I’ll take no less/Than all in full excess!’ That full excess, alas, was to be truly hers, but was also seen and heard to characterise an exuberant performance from beginning to end. Stuart Jackson, whom I heard only seven years ago at the Royal Academy of Music in Haydn’s La vera constanza, is now rightly treading larger stages. Here he treated to us a finely, often poignantly sung and acted performance of Jupiter, who truly met his match in Ezgi Kutlu’s fiery Juno. What a joy it was to hear a mezzo here in the line of Marilyn Horne. Karolina Gumos and Terry Wey offered a well matched, nicely contrasted Ino and Athamas, while Evan Hughes’s darkly alluring Somnus justly threatened to steal the show in his scene with Juno and Georgina Melville’s spirited, stylish Iris. Choral singing — and acting — was first-rate throughout, Kosky and his singers fully rising to the task of Handel’s ‘objective’ commentary that yet involves itself, in the line of ancient predecessors. Though I could not help but wish that Konrad Junghänel had permitted greater warmth from the strings, his tempi and general direction proved well variegated, supportive of singers without being reduced to mere accompaniment; and, just as important, strongly suggestive of the panoply of character, emotion, and action on display here. It was clear that all had collaborated to render this, once again, a company achievement from the Komische Oper that was significantly greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

Mark Berry

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