International Händel Festival, Göttingen 2023 Review: Semele

Petrou Starts His Tenure As Artistic Director With A Big Success

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Alciro Theodoro da Silva)

The centerpiece of this year’s International Handel Festival in Göttingen was five performances of the composer’s 1644 music drama “Semele,” in a new production conducted and directed by the festival’s artistic director George Petrou.

At the final curtain, the audience greeted the cast with a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. The bravos rang out around the auditorium as each of the artists came on stage to take their bows. Petrou, the FestspielOrchester and the rest of the production team were all equally well-received, as the applause continued to echo around the theatre. Yet, two hours earlier, following the end of Act one, such an outcome was not so certain.

Visually, Act one was the least appealing. The scenographer, Paris Mexis, created a fairly gloomy staging; the scenery was basic, lacking in color and of little interest, which Stella Kaltsou’s lighting did little to relieve. The overall impression was heavy; even the flashes of comedy were dwarfed by the dark atmosphere. Moreover, the excellent cast that had been assembled for this production seemed a little ill at ease; whether this was first-night nerves or that the singers were simply trying too hard, the expected sparkle was only occasionally evident.

It was not that this was an inadequate performance by any standards, but it just did not fizz!

Petrou’s Direction Highlights the Contrasts Which Shape the Drama

After the interval, however, everything changed. The singers appeared to have thrown off any nerves, and the performance stepped up a gear: there was more vitality and nuance and their acting was less restrained and their singing now displayed a wonderful radiance and brio.

Likewise, the overall conception of Petrou and Mexis’ staging took on a more clearly defined shape, with the inherent comedy of the work free to shine through in a number of well-crafted and very funny scenes. The darkness of the first act, however, was never allowed to disappear, which not only accentuated the comedy but also drew attention to the dark underside of the drama, something which is often downplayed or even ignored by directors. After all, Semele is vain and demanding, greedy and immature, and pays the price by losing her life in a cloud of thunder and lightning, while Juno and Jupiter can hardly be seen as being in any way more admirable, even if they are gods unrestrained by human morality. It was this contrast – the darkness resulting from human folly and weakness set against the comedy that is life – that lay at the heart of Petrou’s production, and it worked very well indeed.

Mexis’ sets for each scene actually turned out to be very imaginative, and they combined successfully to create a clearly constructed, unified staging, although occasionally the overwhelming darkness was at times too much. His sets moved easily between the amusing, such as the first scene of Act two that was set outside a nightclub, with Jupiter disguised as a homeless man, whom nobody apart from the security staff recognized, and the symbolic; for example, Semele spent her time in Jupiter’s apartment in a golden cage. They were occasionally suggestive of a known reality; for instance, a church window was used in Act one to present the forthcoming marriage of Semele to Athamas, while at other times they were more abstract.

The costumes, also designed by Mexis, were a mixture of commonplace contemporary dress and the fabulous, with references to the baroque and the fantastical. Towards the end of Act two, for example, the set is transformed into Arcadia, with the cast dressed in lavish, early 18th century costumes. Obviously, Cupid was clothed in white with a pair of wings. There was also humor in the costuming; Vivica Genaux, playing the role of Ino, was padded out in a blue, easy-fitting costume with long, bright orange hair and large red glasses, which could not help but amuse.

Petrou’s handling of the characters and direction of the situations displayed insight and skill, ensuring that each character was developed with a distinct personality, which, given that a number of the cast were double-parted, was particularly important, especially in the case of Genaux, who also played Juno. His use of video images of Semele, in love with life and herself, also worked well in quickly establishing her naïve vanity. It was his decision to open with Semele dying in childbirth during the overture, however, that really showed his worth, for not only did it bring the tragedy of the work to the fore, but it also allowed the drama to turn full circle as the child she gives birth to is the god Bacchus, who at the end of the drama rises from Semele’s ashes to bring a joy “more mighty than love” to mankind. Thus, from tragedy comes happiness!

Lys Shines Following A Slow Start

After overcoming the slow start of Act one, which she closed with an impassioned, although not a sparkling rendition of her aria “Endless pleasure, endless love,” soprano Marie Lys turned on the style in Acts two and three.

She is a soprano with prodigious versatility who likes to weave imaginative embellishments and indulge in intricate displays of coloratura singing, and the role of Semele offers up numerous opportunities, such as her aria “No, no I’ll take no less” in which she rejects Jupiter’s warnings and demands he show himself in his true form. Lys engaged with the aria head-on and let rip her indignant determination to see Jupiter in his god form; her coloratura careered upwards, spiraled and swirled as her passion ran wild. It was no surprise that Jupiter could not withstand the onslaught, be he a god or not! And, of course, there is the aria “Myself I shall adore” which requires a lighter, more delicate approach, to which Lys reacted with a confident, detailed rendition in which her voice tripped lightly along the line, taking in beautiful embellishments and pleasing, delicately crafted passages of coloratura that nicely captured Semele’s vanity and superficiality.

Yet, the role requires far more than vocal fireworks and shows of ornamentation; it requires sensitivity and the ability to deliver slower, quieter arias. “Oh! sleep why dost thou deceive me” for example, is a slow-moving aria in which Semele laments her inability to sleep, which allowed Lys to display her ability to string out long graceful lines, delicately adorned with suitably fine embellishments. The one negative, which was particularly noticeable in the quieter passages, was her inability to fluently engage with the English language; she is a very good English speaker, but the rhythms and cadences sounded a little awkward, and, on occasions, this compromised the quality of her singing.

Tenor Jeremy Ovenden captured the attention with his lyrically beautiful, clear and emotionally sensitive vocal portrait of Jupiter. His voice is secure and oozes confidence, which immediately positioned him as the god at the centre of power; he strode across the stage with an air of authority, although he was not immune to Semele’s demands and desires, at which times he convincingly voiced his love, anxieties and concerns, most notably in his final passage of accompanied recitative, “Ah, whither is she gone! unhappy fair?” in which he reflects on Semele’s fate; coating his voice with a poignant air, he sensitively inflected the lines to capture his feelings of dejection, but suggestively underpinned them with the air of confidence that being a godhead bings. Arias were equally well delivered. The famous “Where’er you walk, cool gates shall fan the glade” was given a sweet, seductive rendition that inevitably had the audience in its grip.

Being a god, of course, he occasionally appeared in disguise, first as a janitor in Act one and then as a homeless man in Act two, and he was so convincing that both remained almost invisible until he revealed himself.

He also played the small role of Apollo, who helps bring the work to an end.

Genaux’s Comic Interpretations

In the roles of Ino and Juno, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux really appeared to be enjoying herself, swapping between the two characters and drawing out their comic potential. As the two characters were not at all alike, she developed the comedy in two different ways. Ino was good-natured but absurdly fussy and clumsy, so the audience was able to laugh along with Genaux as she muddled her way through the evening, whereas Juno was unpleasant, manipulating and dismissive of others, allowing Genaux to mock her with exaggerated gestures and over-the-top contempt for others. They were splendid interpretations that worked to promote the overall drama, as the audience could easily sympathize with Ino, feeling happy in her good fortune at being able to marry Athama, and to feel no guilt in their dislike of Juno.

As is normal for Genaux, her singing was lyrically pleasing and dramatically strong. For her first aria as Juno, “Hence, Iris, hence away,” she produced a colorfully rich reading, full of emotional inflections and indulged in agile, arresting coloratura runs, which neatly captured Juno’s imperious character, while in the aria “Above measure,” she displayed the lyrical charm of her voice with an easy-lying, pleasingly ornamented rendition that brought out her delight in seeing Semele succumb to her machinations.

Likewise, her vocal characterization of Ino was cleverly developed. In her aria, “Turn, hopeless lover, turn thine eyes,” she sensitively revealed the depth of Ino’s feelings with a lyrically moving reading, which contrasted so strongly with her ridiculous appearance and outwardly gawky personality that it turned her character into a deeply sympathetic figure.

The countertenor Rafal Tomkiewicz put in a strong performance from the outset as the loyal but often frustrated Athamas. He possesses a fresh, homogeneous, pure-sounding voice with an impressive degree of agility, which he used to delight the audience with his well-presented arias. His first, “Hyman, haste, thy torch prepare,” allowed him to show off his pleasing ornamentations and versatile coloratura as he reflected on his forthcoming marriage to Semele, which almost immediately turns to despair, to which he gives voice in the aria “Your tuneful voice,” in what was another fine rendition, his gentle, mournful phrasing expertly capturing the depths of his feelings.

Baritone Riccardo Novaro was cast as Cadmus, King of Thessaly; Somnus, the god of sleep; and the small role of the High Priest. For the two main roles, he created clearly defined portraits: Cadmus as an authoritative father figure and Somnus, the lumbering, sleepy god, as an Asian guru who spent most of his time in a trance-like meditation. As Somnus, Navaro was given the opportunity to sing two arias and a duet. He successfully used the aria “Leave me, loathsome light” to define his character; its long, slow-moving lines, born from years spent sleeping, were beautifully rendered, and the warmth with which he infused the voice was almost soporific in its effect. Although Cadmus does not have an aria, he does have passages of accompanied recitative, notably “Wing’s with out fears,” which were meaningfully and emotionally presented and drew attention to his appealing timbre, clarity of expression and fine articulation.

Soprano Marilena Striftombola was double-parted as Iris and Cupid and made a strong impression in both roles. As Iris, the messenger, she was suitably and amusingly dressed as an air hostess and had the audience laughing along as she struggled with her traveling case, while as Cupid, she flitted daintily around the stage, weaving her magic. It was also a strong singing performance, exemplified by her rendition of “Come, Zephyrs come,” which showed off her light, bright-toned and versatile voice to good effect.

The Kammerchor Athen, under the direction of the chorusmaster Agathangelos Georgakatos, was in splendid voice. Singing with a rich, vibrant sound, their voices sat beautifully alongside the voices of the soloists. They engaged enthusiastically with their roles and were involved in many of the comedic situations, such as forming the queue for the nightclub at the beginning of Act two; moreover, they genuinely appeared to be enjoying the whole experience.

The musical director, George Petrou, produced a refined, sensitive and detailed reading from the FestspielOrchester, Göttingen, which he neatly moulded to meet the demands of drama; the stage and the orchestra exhibited a close harmony throughout the production, so that they supported and thus elevated each other and created an integrated presentation from which the drama naturally grew.

In the end, this production of “Semele” proved itself to be an unqualified success. The reservations of the first act soon disappeared. Mexis’ staging may have initially appeared gloomy, but when seen in the context of the whole work, it made perfect sense; the comedy was able to sit incongruously next to what were fairly dark goings-on without detracting from them. Often, one sees productions in which the comedy dwarves the suffering and pain contained within the work, but that was not the case here; watching Semele die during childbirth and suffer in the flames of Hades made sure of that. As for the slow start, this can easily be put down to a few first-night nerves.

This was Petrou’s first season as the festival’s artistic director, and if this imaginative and dramatically strong “Semele” is a sign of what is to come, then roll on next year!


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