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Joélle Harvey is outstanding in Glyndebourne's incendiary Semele

By , 24 July 2023

Semele has a strong party against it,” said one contemporary admirer of the work. The controversy was over the confused genre, as Congreve’s original libretto was for an English opera, and Handel performed it only as an oratorio, and it was never staged in his day. Adele Thomas’ new production for Glyndebourne makes a good case for its operatic credentials.

Joélle Harvey (Semele) and Stuart Jackson (Jupiter)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

The libretto has the Classical Greek premise of Gods and mortals interacting in a drama played out on heaven and earth. Here we have the same setting for celestial and terrestrial action. Annemarie Woods’ set is a bare stage, its sides reflecting clouds peaceful or stormy. The floor of the stage is rough and earthy, snowy for Somnus asleep, and Semele’s heavenly abode is a rewilded corner of Olympus. So the two 60-minute intervals are not required for elaborate set changes.

There are two effective nods towards Baroque opera’s devotion to spectacle. Jupiter and Semele descend into view embowered in a roseate bed, he dozing while his latest paramour sings “Endless pleasure, endless love”. And when this relationship and the plot has run its course, and Semele is tricked into demanding Jupiter appear to her as his true incandescent self, she is forcibly entombed in a statuesque capsule, which bursts into flame. Few Brünnhildes are granted so splendid an immolation.

Joélle Harvey (Semele) and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Hannah Clark’s costumes are contemporary quotidian for mortals, elaborate regal for immortals. Jupiter, being one masquerading as the other, sports a bright lemon-coloured suit. The presence of a chorus allows choreographer Emma Woods to pour energy onto the stage. We have the chorus bearing witness Classical Greek style, and in its later operatic role as a community of participants. Prepared by Aidan Oliver, the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus sang superbly this glorious music, Handel’s admiring nod to his Purcellian inheritance.

Jennifer Johnston (Juno), Joélle Harvey (Semele) and Stephanie Wake-Edwards (Ino)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Joélle Harvey an outstanding Semele, helped by Adele Thomas’ view that she is not the vain creature dismissed by contemporaries. So in her mirror aria she pushes the mirror away, so that her opening lines “I shall myself adore, if I persist in gazing” is a rejection of vanity, rather than the usual 18th-century precursor to “I feel pretty”. Harvey’s singing ranged with equal ease from her sensuous love music to some dazzling coloratura. Jennifer Johnston as her nemesis Juno, if not quite so persuasive vocally, made a formidable rival, commanding indeed in such moments as the accompanied recitative “Awake Saturnia from thy lethargy”. Stephanie Wake-Edwards was a sympathetic Ino, singing and interacting particularly well in her duets.

Jennifer Johnston (Juno), Clive Bayley (Somnus) and Samuel Mariño (Iris)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Jupiter spends more time wooing than being top God, and fails even to act to overcome his predicament. Stuart Jackson has such an imposing stage presence that he hardly needs his luminescent suit to get noticed. He sang his love music well, although not quite sounding in his best voice in “Where’er you walk” where his mezza voce was a bit too attenuated at moments. But his sound steadied and he impressed more later, touching (and amusing) in his reluctance to incinerate Semele. 

The roles of Cadmus and Somnus were well taken by Clive Bailey, busy in the first, amusingly somnolent in the second. Male soprano Samuel Mariño as Iris made a fussy sidekick for Juno, but sang “There from mortal cares retiring” with sweet if slender tone. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen made much of the dull Athamas, the best male voice on display, though his anger and aggression in his joyous final number seems a curious directorial whim. Václav Luks conducted The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with distinction throughout. 

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“few Brünnhildes are granted so splendid an immolation”
Reviewed at Glyndebourne Opera House, Glyndebourne on 23 July 2023
Handel, Semele
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Václav Luks, Conductor
Adele Thomas, Director
Annemarie Woods, Set Designer
Hannah Clark, Costume Designer
Peter Mumford, Lighting Designer
The Glyndebourne Chorus
Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Ino
Clive Bayley, Somnus, Cadmus
Joélle Harvey, Semele
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, Athamas
Stuart Jackson, Jupiter
Jennifer Johnston, Juno
Samuel Mariño, Iris
Emma Woods, Choreography
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