Often – mistakenly – classified as a comedy, this staged oratorio production of Semele by George Frederick Handel in Barrie Kosky’s 2018 production for Komische Oper may have a few comic touches, but it is much more about the obsession of love. After all, the first chords are in C major, inferring the inherent tragedy of what is to come. Despite splendid choruses and expressive arias typical of an oratorio – which did not have to follow the rigid scheme of the opera seria genre – Handel's contemporaries initially wrinkled their noses at the juicy and erotic material, which was perceived as completely unsuitable for an oratorio. That has changed. Today, Semele is one of Handel’s most popular works.

Nicole Chevalier (Semele)
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Jupiter, god of gods and a great quick-change artist when it comes to making a female conquest, kidnaps and seduces the king's daughter Semele on the eve of her wedding to Prince Athamas. Semele not only consents, but truly falls for Jupiter and is ready to do whatever is necessary in order to keep the god’s love. Juno, Jupiter's deeply offended wife, is eager to put an end to this unrestrained affair. She also relies on the divine power of transformation and appears to Semele as her sister, Ino, and persuades her to get Jupiter to show her his true identity. This appeals to Semele and she insists on knowing his true form. Jupiter tries to dissuade Semele to no avail. Upon her continued insistence, he changes into a ball of fire, which instantly reduces her to ashes. According to legend, however, an unborn child emerges from Semele's ashes: Bacchus, god of intoxication, excess and ecstasy.

In this revival, tenor Stuart Jackson is Jupiter, his tall, strong appearance an ideal foil for Sydney Mancasola as Semele. He sang the score’s most famous aria “Where'er you walk“ as a consummate love song, ending in a most tender pianissimo with the petite Semele standing on his feet in tight embrace before both succumb to passionate love. Mancasola communicated her ambitions clearly with a lyrical vulnerability. Ezgi Kutlu was the Juno when Kosky's production premiered. Her interpretation of the cheated wife was all too human – intense in her ire, while fully aware of her superior position to any rival – and fully convincing. Mezzo-soprano Karolina Gumos sang Semele’s sister, Ino, ardently fighting for her own happiness, which she attains as the only happy-end couple in the opera when she marries Athamas, Terry Way, who sang with a pleasantly coloured, even timbred countertenor throughout. Philipp Meierhöfer, as King Cadmus, brought his warm bass to the futile efforts of drumming sense into his daughters. 

This encounter between gods and humans takes place in style in the main hall of a Baroque mansion (designed by Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon), a little the worse for wear over immortal centuries, but still reminiscent of past splendour. The main protagonists are in formal dress – after all, the occasion is a royal wedding – and the as always excellent chorus is in their Sunday best, all designed by Carla Teti.

Baroque specialist Konrad Junghänel led the orchestra from an unusually high-placed pit, no doubt to make the more delicate cembalo, organ and theorbo instrumentation clearly heard. Junghänel understands the Baroque structural freedom of the composition and underlined the rhythmic, almost pop-music like beat of the score. Both Kosky and Junghänel clearly position this 276-year-old work in the contemporary sphere.