Ambition, jealously, betrayal, vanity... lust... No, not on this occasion, the forces behind recent and current events in Westminster, but some of the themes of Handel’s secular ‘oratorio’ Semele. Those qualities didn’t exactly endear themselves to the first audiences during the Covent Garden Lenten season in 1744, who were expecting something a little more pious. But this tale from Classical mythology as humanised by Handel’s music makes such an effective opera that, following the Handel revival of the last half century or more, it has become one his most performed stage works. The latest company to mount it is Royal Academy Opera, the theatrical arm of the Royal Academy of Music based in its splendid new Susie Sainsbury Theatre. In the tradition of conservatoire opera productions, Semele is being performed with alternating casts; what follows concerns the team on opening night.

Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele) © Robert Workman
Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele)
© Robert Workman

The story of Semele, adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphosis by William Congreve whose verse text was further modified for Handel’s use, tells of Jupiter’s abduction of a mortal as his lover and the fatal consequences of the god’s jealous wife Juno finding out. Juno uses the god of sleep, Somnus, to fire up Jupiter’s lust with erotic dreams and then traps him into revealing his godly form to Semele, thus signing her death sentence. The mortal is destroyed by his thunderbolt, and the god Bacchus is born from her ashes. Hardly secular oratorio material indeed, despite the moral angle. Director Olivia Fuchs gives it a contemporary setting, with a swipe at celebrity culture – at the work’s climax, as the chorus members film the self-adoring Semele on their smartphones, she expires in the face of a modern take on Jupiter’s deadly thunderbolt: camera flashguns. The designs by takis are simple but effective: a central light-box acts as platform, bed and scenery on an often bare stage with few props, and Jake Wiltshire’s lighting does much of the work in creating mood and atmosphere.

Olivia Warburton (Ino) and Alexander Simpson (Athamas) © Robert Workman
Olivia Warburton (Ino) and Alexander Simpson (Athamas)
© Robert Workman

What impressed most, though, was the detailed characterisations that Fuchs drew from her young singers. She sets up the different characters’ relationships over the music of the overture, including what looks like Semele, Jupiter and Juno in the configuration of the ‘distracted boyfriend’ social-media meme of a year or so ago. Semele, sung with superb vocal control by the Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaitė, was portrayed as a complex, developing character, progressing from reluctant bride in the first scene to a god’s lover frustrated by her mortality, to an over-the-top narcissist, exemplified in her aria “Myself I shall adore”, sung with crisp coloratura and suitably extravagant ornamentation.

Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele) and Chorus © Robert Workman
Lina Dambrauskaite (Semele) and Chorus
© Robert Workman

Ryan Williams’ Jupiter, although his words were sometimes a little masked in their projection, was mellifluous, no more so than in his famous aria “Where’er you walk”, one of the those glorious lyrical moments in Handel when time seems to stand still. Countertenor Alexander Simpson is another singer to watch – he made much of the luckless Athamas, Semele’s supposed betrothed, and there was real dramatic intensity in his Act 1 scene with her sister Ino (the excellent Olivia Warburton). Frances Gregory channelled Juno’s rage effectively, aided by Emilie Cavallo’s plucky Iris, and bass Thomas Bennett was a wonderfully sleazy Somnus, vocally better focused than his more quavery Cadmus (it’s never easy for a young singer to convince in fatherly roles). Aimée Fisk’s brightly sung Cupid and Joseph Buckmaster’s solid Apollo completed this excellent ensemble cast. The latter singer was a step-out from the very fine chorus, which sang with crisp diction and a sense of ensemble that would put many a professional opera-house chorus to shame. The period-instrument orchestra made a robust, nicely full-bodied Handelian sound and conductor Laurence Cummings ensured the momentum and dramatic drive never wavered.

****1