In this opera “after the manner of an oratorio”, Handel fused elements typical of the two forms to create a unique work, where dazzling, passionate music and comic moments alternate with complex, polyphonic choruses. The plot is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a Theban princess, Semele, falls in love and starts an affair with Jupiter, the king of the gods. His wife, Juno, decides to act. Disguised as Semele’s sister Ino, she visits Semele, and suggests that she ask to see Jupiter in his god-like form, as he appears on Mount Olympus. In this way, she will obtain immortality. Semele sexually manipulates Jupiter into granting her wish, which he is bound to fulfil, and when the mighty thunderer appears in all his glory, she dies. In a subplot, Semele’s abandoned fiancé, Athamas, ends up marrying Ino.

In Carsen’s production, the action is moved to mid-20th century England, where Juno is Queen Elizabeth II, and Semele’s role is less clear. She is portrayed as a vain social climber destroyed by ambition, and while this could fit the plot, the modernization of the action didn’t add much to the story. The result was somewhat incoherent: Queen Elizabeth II is the monarch; she was never subject to a king. The scene was reduced to a large room, whose most notable feature was a gigantic double door. A red carpet was rolled out of the door in the public scenes, while a large bed characterized the more intimate ones. The setting, while unobtrusive, was also uninspiring, although the lighting, by Carsen and Peter van Praet, was brilliant. Carsen worked considerably on the movement of the singers to instil a sense of motion into the stiff text.

William Christie confirmed his status as a true giant of the Baroque repertoire. His reading of the score was precise and clear, with perfectly chosen tempi and an extensive palette of emotions. His leadership is based on community of intent more than force: he led the ensemble with a strong hand, but without micro-managing, letting the players and singers find their way, helping them through with vigour when needed. The Zurich period orchestra La Scintilla responded with its best: they played with precision, passion and a sincere love for the music. At the reprise of Jove’s aria “Where’er you walk”, they found the softest, sweetest cloud of sound imaginable, drawing tears even before the tenor had a chance to come in.

The Zurich Opera Chorus was nothing short of exceptional. Their precision in the intertwined polyphony was matched by their spotless English pronunciation and committed acting. Bravi!

Cecilia Bartoli was an irresistible Semele, her natural enthusiasm and joie de vivre perfectly suited to the character. After a repressed, mournful first act (as Semele is supposed to marry Athamas), when Jupiter snatches her away to their love nest, she shows up wrapped in a sheet, hair dishevelled in full post-love-making beatitude, for the aria “Endless Pleasure”. From that moment, she roams the stage like a hurricane. It’s hard to imagine a singer who can convey unaltered passion for love and life as Bartoli can. She’s overwhelming, which likely explains her high number of naysayers. Although I prefer her in mezzo roles, she displayed a full command of this high soprano score: her coloratura was legendary as usual, the high notes full and bright. Her melancholy aria “O sleep” was heart melting, but she did her best work at the end. In the comical aria “Myself I shall adore”, where she falls in love with her own reflection in a mirror, Bartoli displayed a good dose of self-irony, using the coloratura to marvel, in awe, at the perfection of her own various body parts. Kudos to her. 

Frédéric Antoun was Jupiter, his tenor high and bright, but full in the middle range, with confident coloratura. He and Bartoli showed very good chemistry while rolling in the hay; he may not have the imposing physique one associates with Jupiter, but he was a credible king of the gods. Ino was Deniz Uzun. I was impressed by the true alto quality of her voice, its depth and smoothness, and her great projection. Juno was Katarina Bradić, whose velvety mezzo was perhaps not as well projected, but showed great musicianship and character. Rebeca Olvera, as Iris (Juno’s assistant) won the audience with a bright, sparkling voice and a true comical talent.

Nahuel Di Pierro sang the roles of Cadmus, Semele’s father, and Somnus, the god of sleep. He had a slightly rocky start, but soon recovered, his bass sonorous and elegant. Athamas was Christophe Dumaux, whose unusually smooth countertenor and perfect coloratura made one regret that his two arias were sadly cut.