Lauded by many as one of the Baroque era’s greatest composers, we all know Georg Friedrich Händel – or George Frederick Handel as he is known in the English speaking world – for his Messiah and Water Music. A prolific composer, he wrote many oratorios, which were originally allowed to be played during Lent and other religious periods. Semele was written in 1743, by an already mature Handel, after his opera serias were becoming less well received than they had once been. The big novelty of the time was that Semele was composed entirely in English and is surely the closest that any of his oratorios get towards opera (though today many of them are staged as such). Stage director Barrie Kosky – who took over at short notice after the originally planned director Laura Scozzi had to cancel due to illness – definitely places it in the operatic genre. He creates a very worldly universe in which gods and mortals are prone to the same emotions.

Nicole Chevalier (Semele), Katarina Bradić (Ino) and Ezgi Kutlu (Juno) © Monika Rittershaus
Nicole Chevalier (Semele), Katarina Bradić (Ino) and Ezgi Kutlu (Juno)
© Monika Rittershaus

As with all plots based on mythology, this one is complicated: Princess Semele is the mistress of top god Jupiter. His jealous wife Juno seeks revenge and whispers to Semele in false guise, telling her to have Jupiter appear to her in his true form as a testimony of his love. Jupiter cannot dissuade Semele, appearing as lightning at her request, and she subsequently burns up. There are a couple of subplots, with Semele’s almost-groom Athamas and her sister Ino finding true love, and with Juno and her helpers Iris and Somnus at hand to carry out her revenge.

Barrie Kosky tells the story in flashback: at the beginning we see Semele rise from her still-smoldering pyre, barely understanding what just happened to her. And it is from this same pyre that she sings her last, beautifully melancholy lament, covered with third-degree burns. The moral of the story seems to be that you can’t have everything, a message from the librettist William Congreve that is just as true today as it was in the 18th century.

Allan Clayton (Jupiter) and Nicole Chevalier (Semele) © Monika Rittershaus
Allan Clayton (Jupiter) and Nicole Chevalier (Semele)
© Monika Rittershaus

The story unfolds in a burnt-out Baroque hall, blackened and charred by the thunderous lightning that also burns Semele. This unit set, designed by Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon, combines Baroque opulence and monochromatic simplicity with fireplaces allowing for disappearing and time travel, and mirrors reflecting vanities. The contemporary evening dress by Carla Teti for the gods tell a good deal about their personalities, too: Juno’s elegant purple satin gown expresses her royal status and jealous mindset, for example.

Soprano Nicole Chevalier was announced as ill at the beginning of the evening, but that did not impair her from literally throwing herself into the role as well as the ashes of her pyre, rising from them like a phoenix and embellishing dizzying coloraturas with passion. Her rival, Turkish mezzo Ezgi Kutlu, delivered a Juno relishing in the success of her intrigue and revenge. Tenor Allan Clayton was her somewhat hapless husband Jupiter, who just wants his fun and was sung with just-right Baroque timbre. From the large supporting cast, the Iris of soubrette Nora Friedrichs deserves a mention as a perfectly sung, high-pitched innocent. American countertenor Eric Jurenas mastered the ungrateful role of the stood-up groom Athamas with grace and sibilant tones. Mezzo Katarina Bradić made the most of the bland role of Semele’s younger sister Ino. Kosky has bass-baritone Evan Hughes show off his luscious body and voice as the somnolent god Somnus in his small role.

Nicole Chevalier (Semele) and chorus © Monika Rittershaus
Nicole Chevalier (Semele) and chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

The excellent chorus (prepared by David Cavelius), is given the role of commenting the story and was fully integrated into the dramaturgy by Kosky, with a great attention to individual elaboration. The Baroque specialist Konrad Junghänel (well known to the Komische Oper public from the successful Xerxes or Giulio Cesare in Egitto productions in past seasons), coaxed the orchestra musicians to immerse themselves in the Baroque sound as if this repertoire is their bread and butter. He elicited from them disarmingly beautiful pianissimi as well as thundering outbursts of despair. Special mentions go to violoncello and theorbo solos by Rebekka Markowski and Thomas Ihlenfeldt respectively. Chalk up another hit for the most adventurous opera house in Berlin at this time.

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