“Endless pleasure” could almost be the anthem of opera festivals up and down the country, accompanied by images of long interval picnics and rolling lawns basking beneath golden late afternoon sun. Garsington Opera is one such pastoral idyll – a deer park, lake and cricket pitch all on hand – opening its 2017 season with Handel’s Semele, in which the title character extols the joys of being Jupiter’s mistress, “Endless pleasure, endless love”. Whether it could be used to describe Annilese Miskimmon’s hyperactive production is another matter.

Composed to a pre-existing libretto by William Congreve as a musical drama "after the manner of an oratorio", Semele is far closer to opera. It charts the cautionary tale of the ambitious Princess Semele, Jupiter’s mistress who craves immortality but crashes and burns. It’s the sort of plot which can easily take a contemporary update on the transient nature of celebrity. Miskimmon is not shy of playing a lot of it for laughs. Juno, goddess of love and marriage, is perpetually pregnant, singing her aria “Hence, Iris, hence away” whilst convulsed by contractions until given an injection and laughing gas by Somnus. It’s a joke that becomes laboured.

Nicky Shaw’s set design opens with a giant heart of red roses hoisted over a high society wedding ceremony. Semele flees down the aisle, leaving her would-be bridegroom Athamus distraught at the altar, although Ino, her sister and bridesmaid, clearly has the hots for him. Chandeliers and the wedding cake explode on Jupiter’s command and a camp cabin crew escorts Semele’s flight to Jupiter’s celestial pleasure palace – he literally gives her the moon. This heavenly backdrop looks splendid, “Trumped” by glowing orbs scattered across the stage. Semele, in sparkly leggings, clearly loves her new lifestyle but is duped into demanding that Jupiter appear to her in godly form, resulting in her death, her wizened alter ego clambering into a coffin. Handel and Miskimmon ensure no downbeat ending though. When Ino scatters Semele’s ashes, glitter – inevitably – tumbles from the casket before a winged baby Bacchus is born and Ino gets hitched to Athamus.  

The soprano taking the title role needs huge stamina as Handel gives her aria after aria, on top of which Miskimmon demands a fair amount of stage movement, “Endless pleasure” sung from a constantly spinning bed. Heidi Stober threw herself into the part with tremendous vigour, coloratura runs dispatched athletically and bringing great colour to her trills. If she slightly ran out of steam in her final aria, it was entirely understandable, especially after twisting her knee badly in Act 2. “Myself I shall adore”, Semele convinced by Juno’s magic mirror that she really is the most gorgeous creature on earth – or above it – was suitably glitzy in its vocal fireworks.

Rob Murray’s mellifluous tenor was a good fit for Jupiter. His coloratura was a little ungainly in places, but “Where e’er you walk” was the loveliest bit of singing all evening, Murray’s beautifully even line accompanied by a blackbird obbligato from the gardens outside. Miskimmon cleared the stage for a flutter of leaves over the reclining Semele, a telling moment of calm.  

Christine Rice was in splendidly rich voice, putting in a great comic turn as Juno, while David Soar’s authoritative bass graced both Cadmus (Semele’s father) and a snoozy Somnus, caressed by his duvet in Act 3. Christopher Ainslie’s soft-grained countertenor made for a disappointing Athamus, while Jurgita Adamonytė’s cloudy diction made little of Ino.

Jonathan Cohen secured alert playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra, sensitively shaping the line in the slower numbers. The highlight was the beautiful simplicity to the cello, theorbo and chamber organ scoring for Semele’s “Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” The splendid chorus – given plenty to do by Handel – contained some very strong young voices.

On a golden afternoon on the Wormsley estate, not everything on stage necessarily glittered, but there’s plenty of spirit in this production to entertain. If you can’t make it in person, there are four free screenings around the UK in July.


Mark's journey to Garsington was sponsored by Chiltern Railways