Saturday, 9 April 2011

Semele, Hampstead Garden Opera

An unexpectedly hot evening at the Hampstead Gatehouse Theatre, and not only because of the premature arrival of summer. Handel's late opera has the familiar operatic issues of romantic entanglements and Olympian meddling, but with the politics of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. Aside from a youthful willingness to engage with the work's explicit nymphomania, it's a good opera for the company to undertake, having a large principal ensemble, some hit tunes and scope for all manner of comedy and frolicking on stage.

James Hurley's production, necessarily played out on a single set, deals ingeniously with the im/mortal divide. Jupiter's household kick their heels around a central dais, which, during the overture, they actively reveal to be a suburban living room. Semele's petitioning of Jupiter to save her from an arranged marriage and his intervention happen in this space with the characterisations played bold, as if revisiting Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party or a Pinter drama. The chorus appear as a spectral entity off the dais, veiled both in costume and vitality. It's a slow-burning conceit that ties in with Rachel Szumkler's dust-sheet/Elysian cloud design and makes for a festive if equivocal denouement to the opera, emphasising its vague rescue-drama DNA.

Other ideas abound, and though these are often rather clever they can congest not only the drama but also the space, a very real concern in this paraphernalia-heavy production. For example, I liked the Truman Show styling of the deus ex machina business but its consequences were headphones, step ladders and gestures that crowd a space that I might have preferred the characters to fill.

This didn't seem to bother the cast unduly, working situations exhaustively during Handel's arias. John Lattimore's pomade-slicked Athamus is clearly at home on the stage and gets Elaine Tate's Semele squirming nicely. Ultimately, the kitchen-sink dramatics of the first scene gravitate towards the pitiful Ino. At first hiding her simmering passion for Athamus inside a cereal box, the disappearance of Semele prompts her to open herself (Turn, hopeless lover). Melanie Sanders has the vocal-dramatic balance exactly right, integrating her performance and keeping her acting simple and focused. It makes for a very affecting stretch.

The best arias - and much of the best singing - is to be found in the second act. The space has been converted to the carefully preserved playground of Elysium with the chorus and Semele dressed in sci-fi couture bubble wrap (suggesting, amongst other things, the vaguest hint of Barbarella-fetishism). Juno and Jupiter, silent manipulators of the first, mortal act now find their voices. Kathryn Walker is a fearsome wife, singing with a fire to match her livid face. Zachary Devin's Jupiter is worth waiting for, a nicely produced, generous sound, totally secure in the oxymoronic I must with speed amuse her, sung under petulant pillow fire from Semele. The reunion of the sisters to close the first half is touchingly well-played.

Finally it's an exchange of coloratura in the final act that really shows both Tate and Devin at their best, culminating in Semele's ferocious, danger-blind No, no, I'll take no less. Performing physically throughout, Elaine Tate finds both the glitter in Endless pleasure and the warmth in O sleep, why do'st thou leave me and this final burst of lustful delirium is quite a thrill. The truly terrifying consequences of her demands (Ah me, too late I now repent) are in the spirit of this energy quenched, rather than pity sought.

Smaller roles and cameos are taken well enough, Daisy Brown's puckish Iris and Andrew Tipple's laconic Somnus being of particular note. As in much Handel opera this has a significant chorus part as well, a tricky sequence of numbers securely performed by a small corps - so small in fact that they rely on a single bass, for which Martin Musgrave's contribution is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, on this occasion the heat conspired against Oliver-John Ruthven's Musica Poetica. His safe tempi and direction from the keyboard anchored the music although the temperature absorbed some of its energy. This florid, busy production of Semele runs for a single week during the opening of that other, more high-profile production featuring a feckless young woman, The Coronation Of Poppea, happening just down the road in Highbury. Semele generates wit and zest on its own terms though and is well worth trying to get to see.

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