Semele – George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Nicholas Cleobury
Director: Martin Constantine
Designer: Grace Venning
A co-production between Mid Wales Opera and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in association with the Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Burton Theatre, RWCMD, 11th February 2017
For his swansong as artistic director of Mid Wales Opera before heading for sunnier climes, Nicholas Cleobury has produced a cracker. This co-production of Semele with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama fizzes with energy which crescendoes without a dip to the Hallelujah-like final chorus when Apollo arrives with gifts for all.
The gifts which he brings are shiny and up-to-the minute, like everything about this production. Director Martin Constantine’s long track record of working with young singers includes several past productions at the RWCMD, and it was evident from this performance how much he enables the singers to own the stage with confidence and aplomb. Full credit for her role in this to designer Grace Venning. In her final year of the BA in Design for Performance at the RWCMD, she has an assured eye and her sets in particular are clean and sleek, bridging with style the transitions between heaven and earth required in the opera.
The show opens in one of the dingier corners of the earth – a representation of the Church of Juno where Semele is due to be married, unwillingly, to Athamus. As the orchestra sets a mood of tension and foreboding, Semele enters and dons her wedding dress. A screen is folded back by some kind of caretaker and there stands a sinister group of men. What is this church? The high priest Cadmus, a role embraced with suitable pomposity by Andre Henriques, lights a flame on the altar and the tension is screwed up for the drama to begin to unfold. As Athamus sings the Air ‘Hymen, haste thy torch prepare’ the drama is indeed graphic!
When Handel premiered Semele in 1744 it came on the heels of his success with Messiah and other oratorios. He knew that audiences loved his choruses, and thought that he could compete successfully with his rival Dr Arne by casting Semele in something like oratorio form, with plenty of music for the chorus. But audiences were ever fickle. They loved Arne’s setting of Congreve in The Judgement of Paris, but when Handel used the same librettist only a few years later his work was condemned as ‘bawdy’. The MWO/RWCMD co-production unashamedly embraces the bawdiness, though with taste and discretion.
In the same way as a contemporary production of a Shakespeare play can make the bard’s words live today, so does this production make Handel’s work speak to us afresh in 2017. The scene that demonstrates this most clearly is the conclusion of Act 1, where Semele, transported to heaven where she is in bed with her lover Jupiter, sings of ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ while the earthbound chorus watch the lovers’ embraces on a laptop, before taking up the song. Grace Venning’s set for this – enhanced by Samuel Smith’s strips of neon lighting – is simple but utterly brilliant, and Lucy Mellors’ singing as Semele as she wrestles with Jupiter under the sheets of the vertical bed no less divine than the setting.
Sets and lighting use colour effectively to unify the opera – golds, pinky-purple and blues run through it. In Cadmus’s aria ‘Wing’d with our fears and pious haste’, he sings of ‘azure flames’ around Semele’s head and the purple wings and gold beak of the eagle which descends to carry her up to Jupiter’s celestial domain. The descending phrases are passed from orchestra to singer and back again, all part of the painting of the scene.
This production never lets Handel’s arias bring the action to a standstill, though the action itself can present the singers with challenges. In Act 3 of the opera, Semele is encouraged to see herself as more than human by Juno, the Queen of the Gods, who is seeking her revenge for her husband Jupiter’s betrayal. As Semele starts to fall in love with her own image she sings the da capo aria ‘Myself I shall adore’ while being dressed and painted with gold by Juno. To her absolute credit, Lucy Mellors didn’t miss a beat of Handel’s testing coloratura even when she was faced with the threat of a wardrobe malfunction.
The interplay between Lucy Mellors as Semele and Rhodri Jones as Jupiter is engagingly natural and playful. No stuffy God-come-to-earth he, but a boy-next-door who might well, had the gigs not clashed, have been cheering Wales on just down the road in the 6-nations rugby match. He brings his lover coffee and croissants, and, for good measure, sings to her most beautifully. I was particularly impressed by his effortlessly-perfect diction and personally would have liked to have listened to him singing ‘Where’er you walk’ without the chorus of celestial gallery attendants distractingly bringing on artworks to create Arcadia in the background. Stillness at this point would have been a welcome counterpoint to all the business in other scenes.
The business was, nonetheless, mighty clever and bang up to date – the use of phones by the chorus to take selfies of themselves with Semele and Jupiter, the view of heaven from earth through the screen of the laptop (doubly clever when it served as a way for the chorus to unobstrusively follow the conductor’s beat!); Juno vaping in the gallery and so on.
Through it all Handel’s music was the star, but there were singing stars in the making here too. Look out for Rhodri Jones and Lucy Mellors in future, in particular. Lesley Dolman was powerful as Juno and Rachel Goode strong-voiced as Iris. Christine Bryne as Ino duetted sweetly with Daniel Keating-Roberts as Athamus, and Blaise Malaba and Matthew Clark made the most of their moments in the spotlight as Somnus and Apollo respectively.
There are two casts for this show, and in this performance all the principal roles bar one were taken by students – I can only assume that no student counter-tenor was available to take the role of Athamus. Singers on the brink of their professional careers are surely at the height of their enthusiasm, and this was supremely evident here, as was the sense of camaraderie in the company. The singing and acting of the students was first-rate across the board. The chorus were exemplary in their vocal discipline, singing with a suitable balance of attack and delicacy and moving around the stage nimbly. Credit goes to associate director/movement, Jennifer Fletcher for her work in facilitating this.
Instrumental support was given by a lean band of first-rate players, one third of them RWCMD student players playing with regulars from the Academy of Ancient Music. In the intimate compass of the College’s Richard Burton Theatre, with the band sitting stage right and half out of sight, conductor Nicholas Cleobury achieved a perfect balance of sound.
The collaboration between Mid Wales Opera and the RWCMD extends to all aspects of the production, both for this and the other opening performances at the College, and also for touring. This is not a student show; it is a fully professional one in which young people who are the future of opera in Wales and beyond are showing their mettle.
Header photo of Lucy Mellors (Semele) by Matthew Ellis-Williams