Review by Alan Gibbs of Handel's Semele 2015

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Normansfield Theatre was an appropriate venue for Isleworth Baroque this year,
given its association with amateur productions including those of the Genesta
Amateur Dramatic Club founded by Dr and Mrs Langdon Down not long after its
opening in 1879. Around its walls is a historical reminder in the shape of six panels
painted for the original Savoy Theatre Ruddigore of 1887. Semele –not to be
confused with Solomon, mounted by IB’s enterprising group four years ago- is
correctly described as an opera, although it was for many years performed ‘after the
manner of an Oratorio’ without action. Handel’s last Italian opera dates from 1741,
but oratorios on religious subjects had engaged his attention from the revival of
Esther in 1732. Although Semele is classical, not religious, the use of English
(associated with the more populist Beggar’s Opera and The Dragon of Wantley, both
familiar to IB audiences) may have moved him towards concert presentation in this
case, although protests by the Italian opera aristocrats apparently led him to add five
numbers in Italian as a sop in later performances. But Jennens (compiler of the text
for Messiah) was not fooled: he called it ‘a bawdy opera’.
IB fields a combination of amateurs and professionals which works well. Under the
new direction of Lindsay Bramley (music) and Maria-Lisa Geyer, with Roberto De
Gregori as choreographer and Lucy Green as producer, we heard tempi ranging from
the reflectively sedate to the excitingly fast, and saw imaginative use of the curtain to
separate scenes as well as the placing of non-acting chorus members with the
orchestra to free up space on stage and at the sides. Not all accidents can be avoided
on a first night –a costume’s inflexibility, a soloist’s hesitation, notes in the melody
not matching the harmony. But the odd anxious look when the descending curtain
threatened to flatten an actor fortunately proved unfounded, and the cohorts of priests
(including the dependable Philip Johnson) and attendants managed to hold statuesque
poses without flinching. There was even a leaven of intentional humour, in spite of
the tragic (if implausible) story, as when Juno, disguised as Ino, reacted to Semele
admiring herself in the mirror with a sort of ‘Honestly, that’s teenagers for you!’ look.
Juno (Virginia Frith), like the other lead singers, coped commendably with the florid
passages in her arias. Emilie Taride as the genuine Ino sang with her special brand of
confident attack and impeccable intonation: she must be looking forward to next
year’s French opera (Rameau). Iris (Jane Anghelatos)’s voice and diction also
provided models of clarity, while Stephanie Lomax’s bouncy Cupid was a total delight
in music and in character. Andrew Evans was physically and vocally well suited to
the role of the lascivious Jupiter, demonstrated equally in his more vigorous arias and
in the familiar ‘Where’er you walk’ in which he prepares Semele for the attractions of
a wooded Arcadia, nicely depicted on the backdrop. Neville Bayross’s melodious
alto was less convincing for Athamas, the object of Ino’s affections, but he had the
requisite dignity as always. John Veale, too, had the appropriate bearing as King
Cadmus, Semele’s father and Tony Moss’s Somnus, god of sleep, used the lower and
upper ranges of his bass voice intelligently. (Could Handel have heard Sleep in
Purcell’s The Fairy Queen or the Cold Genius in King Arthur in one of their
revivals?) Laurence Panter gave us an effective brief final cameo as Apollo
announcing that the heroine’s ashes would arise as a phoenix.
As for Semele herself, Colleen Nicoll was the star of the show. Such was her sound,
phrasing, intonation and personality, you would never guess she had only just
recovered from a vocal infection. ‘Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ was quite
wonderful. The chorus, numerically smaller this year, was nonetheless superb and
the orchestra excellent. The leader Jocelyn Slocombe was totally responsive to the
conductor and the continuo trio of Jeanette Edwards (cello), Michael Keen
(harpsichord) and Wezi Elliott (chittarone) formed a good, firm foundation
throughout. The cello solos were a particular joy.