No wonder the 1744 audience was shocked by this “oratorio” which, far from drawing on Biblical themes, displays before us the sexual misdemeanor of the immortal Jove, with a mortal, Semele. It is the opinion of this reviewer that “concept” productions don’t usually work but Handel seems to need something to help us through all those da capo arias and James Hurley’s imaginative production of “Semele” at the Gatehouse lays bare all the emotional content and adds some extra touches e.g. Juno’s abusive treatment of Iris. The 1950’s setting for the Cadmus, Semele, Ino family suggested an era of sexual repression, making the cavorting in Arcadia all the more shocking or liberating, depending on your point of view. The one disappointment in this otherwise pacy and racy production was the death of Semele. Although played most movingly, why was there no attempt at suggesting she was consumed with fire when beholding Jove in his true glory as in the myth? The poster promised us something of the sort and Jove playing with his lighter before the music started was surely symbolic of lighting a fire…..? Rachel Szmukler’s ‘50’s living room set covered in white sheets presumably representing clouds with well-placed lights, and the costumes involving rolls of bubble-wrap displayed what fringe productions can do best – i.e. with financial constraint something simple and imaginative emerges which allows the work and the performances to shine.

Elaine Tate as Semele, © Laurent Compagnon
Elaine Tate as Semele,
© Laurent Compagnon

Musically, this “Semele” is of a high standard. Oliver-John Ruthven, directing from the harpsichord, kept the Musica Poetica London light and rhythmical throughout with some exquisite oboe playing from Chris Hartland. The Hampstead Garden Opera chorus was in fine vocal form and entertained with their decadent tableaux and their well-drilled arm movements. Of the soloists, the women in the cast were generally stronger than the men. Elaine Tate was lustful and feisty in the title role, never using feminine wiles but unashamedly focused on her goals and relishing Jove as a lover. She sings with passion and an impressive agility. Mezzo Melanie Sanders as her cereal-munching younger sister displayed real tenderness in “Turn Hopeless Lover”. Mezzo Kathryn Walker as Juno, perhaps a little underpowered in the lower register for this role, nevertheless personified consuming rage and revenge and made the fioritura in “Hence Iris, Iris hence away” richly expressive of her fury. (A shame that “Above Measure” was cut from Act III.) Soprano Daisy Brown as “the go-between” Iris was utterly charming in “She resides in Sweet Retreat” and gave some nice touches of loucheness in her lesbian moments with Semele and an earlier snog with Jove. Of the men, Andrew Tipple shone as Somnus with his rich and full bass and gave us moments of both comedy and tenderness as he contemplated Pasithea while hugging his sleeping bag like a teddy bear. Tenor Zachary Devin is a promising Jove with an easy, sweet-toned voice, but as yet lacks the authority or charisma to be a credible “Boss” of the Gods. Dominic Kraemer as Cadmus (in this production no longer founder of Thebes but a wealthy industrialist) was at his strongest in his recounting of Semele’s abduction but failed to convince as a powerful father and counter tenor John Lattimore was appealing as Athamas, giving us some comedy with his luke-warm reaction to the idea that he should marry Ino.