Handel’s Semele from NZ School of Music

New Zealand School of Music: Handel’s Semele, conducted by Michael Vinten, directed by Sara Brodie

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, Kelburn Campus. Thursday 23 July 2009

Back in 2001 the Victoria University School of Music staged Semele. It was not this opera however, now produced by the New Zealand School of Music, but the version by John Eccles, the composer for whom Congreve actually wrote the libretto. As the programme notes record, Eccles’s setting was never performed and was not heard till April 1972, at St John’s Smith Square in London; oddly, the notes failed to mention the 2001 Victoria University production, also in the Adam Concert Room.

A few years before, I heard a lecture by the late Professor Don McKenzie, a Victoria graduate of and later lecturer in the Department of English, who became Professor of bibliography and textual criticism at Oxford, and a specialist in 17th and 18th century English literature. He tutored a paper in literary criticism In my MA year; he was about the most engaging and brilliant lecturer I ever had, and I credit the best mark in my honours degree to his inspiration.

McKenzie was also a knowledgeable music lover and the subject of his lecture was English opera, a consideration of the reasons that opera in English did not take root around the beginning of the 18th century, as it had in France with Lully in the late 17th century. His lecture dealt with the case of Eccles’s Semele and its failure to be staged, because Congreve’s libretto was too late for the opening of the new Queen’s Theatre in 1702 and when it was finished and set by Eccles by 1707, a planned production at the Drury Lane Theatre fell through due to certain duplicitous activities by the impresario who opened his theatre with an Italian pasticcio. That was the beginning of the fashion of the nobility and upper middle class for opera in Italian.

McKenzie played recorded versions of both the Eccles and Handel versions, arguing that Eccles had found an idiomatic musical style much more idiomatically adapted to the English language than was Handel’s (it was his only opera in English); he even believed that Eccles version (recorded in 1989) was the more beautiful and successful rendering of Congreve’s text. New Grove Opera declares that the Eccles opera was the finest opera presented in London between the death of Purcell and Handel’s Rinaldo in 1711. If it had been performed in 1707 and a theatre had been ready to encourage English opera as a result, he argued there was a good chance that an indigenous opera in English might have taken root. For example, Handel would probably have written his works in English and his imitators would have ensured that an English tradition continued to flourish.

Handel’s Semele was a good choice in the 250th anniversary of his death; it is presumably considered a good piece for students because of the large number of roles; clearly not on account of ease of performance and interpretation. There are ten main roles and choruses of wedding guests and of Heavenly Deities, many of which are duplicated or even triplicated. There are 19 names in the cast list.

The Adam Concert Room is not an ideal place for staged productions, but it is at least flexible. This time the orchestra was placed in front of the organ, an attractive position (since it focused attention of the charming case and pipe-work of the instrument), while the audience was seated on the other three sides. It meant that those on the sides had an impeded view at times.

The stage was furnished very simply, with a large round bed in the centre, a door between the audience seated on the right and those facing the orchestra, and a stair on the right of the orchestra leading to the gallery (not used by audiences) which encircles the auditorium – it represented the home of the gods. The main prop was a huge white sheet used variously to cover some of the sexual activity that is often suggested and sometimes to suggest a distinction between earth and the realm of the gods.

The wedding guests’ costumes are modern; while deities both great and small were in a variety of seductive gear, hot pants were favoured by several of the female deities.

The orchestra of 24 players, in front of the organ, played with a certain vivacity though there was some rhythmic monotony and I did not find the kind of accuracy that I’m sure I’m right in recalling at many of the productions and concert performances by the school of music of a decade and more ago.

Principals were good, particularly conspicuous the two cellos which had much solo, quasi-continuo work to do. The harpsichord continuo was deftly contributed by Julie Coulson.

The chorus was rarely disposed as a group, a phalanx, as is the default position among less imaginative directors, but were often in an outward facing circle that allowed the audience to hear the three or four voices in front of them much more loudly than the rest. It was just one of the marks that distinguished the direction by the gifted Sara Brodie. The result was an assembly of solo voices rather than a normal chorus; the aural effect was interesting and far from objectionable. They behaved generally as individuals and throughout created visual diversion.

Most of the principals were a good deal less secure at the beginning than later, after the impact of the full house had given them confidence and dissolved some of the nerves.

The leading roles were more than adequately filled, mainly by advanced or graduate students. Michael Gray, as befitted an already fairly experienced performer, was well-cast as a lustful and arrogant Jupiter, though not without a little concern for the welfare of the girl he has identified as a likely target – and vice versa.

His somewhat cynical urge, ‘I must with speed amuse her’, as he realizes how desperate she is, not just for his sexual attentions, but also to be elevated to the ranks of the immortals, with some particularly turbulent orchestral playing, was tempered by a lovely ‘Where’er you walk’ which at least sounded genuine. Juno, like Fricka in The Ring, has the jealous spoiler’s role; that didn’t deny Rachel Day (Laura Dawson sang Juno at other performances) some good moments such as her urgent ‘Hence Iris, hence away!’. Ultimately, manipulated by Juno disguised as Ino, Jupiter accedes to Semele’s insistence; Jupiter has by then sworn to comply with Semele’s demands and is appalled when she asks for him to appear in his true, incendiary form: ‘Ah! take heed what you press’ he pleads uselessly; and she is incinerated.

Amelia Berry as Semele (Rose Blake, her alternate) had a big role, credibly oversexed, and she sang attractively too. Though her report from on high, ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ was sung instead by Iris, Semele’s ‘Sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ and ‘Myself I shall adore’, exhibiting very different emotions, were heart-felt, and she delivered some rather thrilling, if abandoned, top notes in her aria ‘No, no, I’ll take no less’.

Eventually her insatiable appetite and her Olympian ambition are her undoing.

Her more sedate sister, Ino (Bryony Williams – at other sessions, Bianca Andrew), who was also in love with Athamus, rejoices to be awarded as a second prize to the dead Semele’s bride-groom, and turns out to have an aptitude for sex as eager as her sister’s. Keiran Rayner sang Athamus with some feeling, exhibiting impatience with Semele’s procrastination with his ‘Hymen, haste’; but he’s little more than a plaything of the gods.

Omnipresent was Olga Gryniewicz as Iris, which she sang and acted most vividly, a lively presence throughout the opera. She was given Semele’s aria, ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ (Congreve had given it to Iris in his libretto but Handel changed it to Semele; this production goes back o the original) which she sang from on high with a gusto as if it was she herself was in the midst of it all. A medium-sized role was that of Somnus, the god of sleep, invoked for somewhat nefarious purposes, sung by Joshua Kidd; he sang his famous aria, ‘Leave me loathsome light’ admirably, with a voice ranging from the hushed to ardent pleading.

As I remarked above, the orchestra sounded a little under-rehearsed though there was much excellent individual playing; the staging was imaginative; the cast was excellently disposed and they moved meaningfully. And the singing, both by the many principals and the choruses, was the thing, a good demonstration of the school’s strength.

On the opening night there was a deserved full house; as the only Handel opera Wellington seems likely to see in his anniversary year, and for quite a while, I hope the rest of the season was well supported.

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