Beth Derby is impressed by an opera that showcases some of the best voices in Cambridge, but is let down by its direction.
It is tricky when putting on a semi-staged opera to be able to strike the right balance between a concert and a drama.
While admittedly no-one was expecting Jesus College Chapel to burst into flames for Semele’s death, it was often hard to follow the story given the very minimal direction and set.
The soloists themselves were mostly outstanding; unfortunately did mean that the chorus paled a little in comparison. The antichapel is not the best acoustic for an opera and while the soloists managed to convey the text (particularly the exemplary diction from Helen Charlston as Ino), the chorus’ words were lost over the orchestra.
The duet between Ino and Semelet (Katie Braithwaite) in the second act was one of the highlights if the show, as their voices blended so well and every word carried. Toby Ward as Jupiter also navigated some tricky high notes with a mellifluous tone, particularly the famous aria ‘Where ere you walk’. It’s rare for countertenors to get a chance to shine on the Cambridge opera scene, but both Tom Lilburn (Athamas) and Alex Simpson (Juno) proved that they should. Alex Simpson in particular stole the show with his portrayal of a bitchy, spurned wife (despite wearing a suit!) and the accuracy and ease of his coloratura earned him the only spontaneous mid-act applause of the night.
Jesus chapel was an atmospheric setting for Handel’s retelling of the Roman myth surrounding the seduction of mortal Semele by Jupiter and the revenge of the scorned wife, Juno. The backdrop of masks glimpsing between candlesticks gave an atmospheric, if slightly phantom-of-the-opera-like, feel, although the bed in the middle of the stage was a little superfluous and meant the singers couldn’t be seen whenever they sat or lay down on it.
Another confusing element of the direction was the masking used to define Jupiter masked as a mortal and unmasked as a god, ultimately resulting in Semele’s death when she saw him as a god. While a clever idea, the fact that only Jupiter and Semele had masks meant that that it was neither a unifying elements between the gods or the mortals and simply meant the singers couldn’t act to their full capacity. The orchestra weren’t without their faults but were lead well by Bertie Baigent and provided a tight underlying support.
Semele was a chance for a fine selection of soloists to showcase their talents, although as a dramatic entity it failed to excite.