“Behold a new-erected palace rise!” Iris tells Juno in Act 2 of Semele. Alexandra Palace wasn’t even built when Handel’s “bawdy opera” was premiered in Covent Garden in 1744, but its theatre is indeed newly risen, like the phoenix from Semele’s ashes that Apollo promises in the final scene. After decades of Somnus-like slumber, Ally Pally’s theatre reopened for the first time in 80 years last December and it now presents its first opera since its reincarnation, Handel’s musical drama "after the manner of an oratorio".

Louise Alder (Semele) and Lucile Richardot (Juno/Ino) © Éric Larrayadieu
Louise Alder (Semele) and Lucile Richardot (Juno/Ino)
© Éric Larrayadieu

The walls have retained a “distressed” patina, à la Wilton’s Music Hall or – in Paris – the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, which gives the venue an air of refined decay perfect for Handel’s Baroque gem. It’s quite a coup for Alexandra Palace to bag the London leg of this European tour by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. Other venues include La Scala, Rome’s Santa Cecilia, Barcelona’s Palau de la Música and the Philharmonie in Paris – distinguished company. Its slightly dry acoustic suits Baroque repertoire.

Gardiner recorded Semele in 1981 but revisits it here, convinced more than ever of the score’s greatness. The English Baroque Soloists were on zinging form, woodwinds often standing, strings lithe and bouncy. Gardiner’s tempi were initially on the stately side but there was soon plenty of bite to the orchestral attack.

Gianluca Buratto (Somnus) and Lucile Richardot (Juno) © Éric Larrayadieu
Gianluca Buratto (Somnus) and Lucile Richardot (Juno)
© Éric Larrayadieu

Thomas Guthrie’s concert staging made great use of the space surrounding the EBS. The Monteverdi Choir, in spirited voice, were not confined to serried ranks behind the orchestra, but bustled and hustled around as eager guests at the wedding of Athamas to the reluctant Semele (she preferring godly bliss with Jupiter… at least in earthly guise). Singers made some of their entries via the Stalls and there was a chaise longue for Semele to recline upon.

The solo singing was mixed, with a few disappointments. Hugo Hymas’ light, unforced tenor took a while to settle as Jupiter, but by the time he got to “Where'er you walk” it was at its honeyed best. Gianluca Buratto’s cavernous bass made a strong presence in the dual roles of Cadmus and Somnus, even if his diction was murky. A pair of drowsy bassoons watched over his Somnus as he sang a gorgeous “Leave me, loathsome light”, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. Carlo Vistoli’s pale countertenor made for a wan Athamas (no wonder Semele didn’t want to get hitched) although he sang with great purity and clarity.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Louise Alder and the English Baroque Soloists © Éric Larrayadieu
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Louise Alder and the English Baroque Soloists
© Éric Larrayadieu

Lucile Richardot darkened her treacly tones – and swapped to red velvet dress – to contrast her roaring Juno from her earnest Ino. The French contralto wasn’t always easy on the ear, but she brought Juno to fire-breathing life, employing histrionics to terrifying effect. Emily Owen’s Iris was smartly sung, played as Juno’s clipboard-wielding personal assistant

Rather than having Semele singing about herself in the third person, Guthrie has a winged messenger – well, a messenger on a bicycle – sing the aria “Endless pleasure”, Angharad Rowlands delivering the juicy news of Semele’s sexploits with Jupiter.

Lucile Richardot (Juno/Ino) and Louise Alder (Semele) © Éric Larrayadieu
Lucile Richardot (Juno/Ino) and Louise Alder (Semele)
© Éric Larrayadieu

Appropriately, the star turn was Louise Alder’s sizzling Semele, tremendously sung, sexily bending notes to suggest impure thoughts. Her silky delivery of “Oh, Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” employed a balmy mezza voce and she and Richardot crushed and glided notes in their sisterly duet “Prepare then, ye immortal choir”. Borne aloft by a posse of male choristers – which beats taking the W3 down the Alexandra Park hill! – she sang a pouting, panting “With fond desiring”. I liked the way she played “Myself I shall adore” initially as self-mockery, but then fully succumbed to Juno’s mirror, almost swooning in narcissistic sighs. Her coloratura runs were exquisitely turned, especially in a spitfire “No, no, I'll take no less” as she demands that Jupiter appear to her in godly form, which leads to her ultimate destruction. Semele may well crash and burn, but Alder’s soaring soprano hit the vocal heights.

****1