Music: The perfect Handel for the new Britain

Semele Coliseum, London Idomeneo Barbican, London Felicity Lott Wigmore Hall, London

The death of the Princess of Wales had cultural consequences beyond her funeral's enhancement of Tony Blair's reading skills and John Tavener's profile. Her life made the stage - and in surprising contexts, like the production of Handel's operatic oratorio Semele that played Aix and Flanders last year, and opened this week at the Coliseum.

It is a stylish show: directed by Robert Carsen (responsible for ENO's last Midsummer Night's Dream), designed by Patrick Kinmonth (responsible for nothing much in Britain, but that will soon change), and part of the new approach to Handel which has swept his once-forgotten operas into standard repertory. There are various reasons why we see so much Handel these days, not least a new model army of countertenors to take over the castrato roles that never really worked with trousered women.

But above all, the return to repertory has been driven by stage directors like Nicholas Hytner and Peter Sellars who rethought (and reinvented) the conventions of late-baroque staging which had proved so troublesome. In their hands, the tyranny of the stand-and-sing da capo aria, the very tightness of its formal constraints, became a source of energy. And in the process they grasped as never before the "tone" of these pieces - caught in a peculiarly 18th-century manner between irony and pathos, passion and whimsy.

Carsen's Semele does likewise. It's a wonderfully considered piece of work that holds the comedy and tragedy in seamless balance, with a sparing beauty that builds memorable stage tableaux out of almost nothing. But its USP is that it sets the story - of a foolish girl who falls self- destructively in love with Jupiter - in a 20th-century royal household that looks very much like the one at the end of the Mall. Semele becomes a sacrificial innocent embroiled in a monarchic wedlock mess. And when she dies, collapsing at the foot of the throne while the court looks on, the resonance is obvious.

Or at least it was when I saw the show a year ago. Now Diana's death has faded into history, the resonance is, maybe, muted. But it's still profoundly touching: not at all the Gilbert & Sullivan romp you'd expect from a Semele that blows the odd raspberry at the British Crown.

Rosemary Joshua takes the title role with an alluring (not to say revealing) tenderness that plays down the comic vanity of numbers like "Myself I shall adore" and enables her to die a truly sympathetic death. If she hasn't the pin-sharp clarity of a true coloratura soprano like Ruth Ann Swensen (Covent Garden's dazzling Semele last time round), she none the less has all the notes, and graces them with plaintive beauty.

John Mark Ainsley's Jupiter is tasteful too - over-decorous if anything, with just one glimmer of a joke before the curtain falls. But he's immaculately sung. And Susan Bickley's Juno (aka Her Majesty the Queen) is good as well, though not so funny as when Della Jones did the crown, spectacles and handbag routines at Flanders. Then, they were outrageous. Here they seem to have been softened.

A few other things have been lost in the transfer to London, including the power of Carsen's small-scale jokes (they barely register on the enormous Coliseum stage) and some general musicianship. At Flanders, the minor roles were better cast, the chorus more disciplined, and the conducting (by Mark Minkowski) of a higher order than Harry Bicket manages here. But don't be put off. It's a fine show. And an unimpeachable example of how Handel can be lovingly reconstituted into modern theatre.

When Richard Strauss sat down and lovingly reconstituted Mozart's Idomeneo into the modern theatre of the 1930s, he wasn't doing himself, or Mozart, any favours. At that time, Idomeneo was an unknown opera. Strauss imagined that a touch of doctoring could bring it into line with current tastes. But he was wrong. The Frankenstein-ish compromise that he produced pleased no one and it disappeared into oblivion, where it has more or less remained for 60 years. But it has always had its champions. Michael Kennedy's new Strauss biography (published by CUP: partisan but recommendable) pleads for it to be done again. And last weekend at the Barbican it was - in concert, as part of a Strauss series organised and conducted by Richard Hickox.

By the standards of late-20th- century period integrity, it is a shocking business: not so much for what Strauss takes away (Idomeneo is invariably trimmed down in performance) but for what he adds. The orchestra is big and provides opulent accompaniments to the recitative. There's a new orchestral interlude in Act II that has very little to do with Mozart, and rather more with Strauss's own Aegyptische Helena. And the final insult (if you choose to hear it as such) is a luscious vocal quartet, just before the finale, that unfolds in comparably Helen-ic terms.

Throughout, the rich chromaticism of the doctored score has a stylistically unsettling, seasick to-and-fro movement between the classical and the romantic. The audience response last weekend seemed to be one great collective smirk: half-horrified, but also half-gratified that we know better nowadays.

But do we? This Idomeneo is an aberration from the truth of history. But as a piece to be performed on its own terms, it's a thing of wonder: an exotic mongrel which is bizarrely entertaining. I think I enjoyed it more than any "real" Idomeneo I've ever heard. With the fabulous Christine Brewer as the (adapted) Electra character, Pamela Helen Stephen as an Idamante of surprising substance, and Kurt Streit wonderfully direct in the title role, it was a handsome cast. They were superbly accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia and conducted with exhilarating vigour. How could anyone complain? I don't.

Nor am I complaining about Felicity Lott's Schumann recital at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday, for all its demure reduction of the emotional currency in the songs. It was a narrative recital, put together with the pianist Graham Johnson and actor Gabriel Woolf to tell the story of the Schumann marriage. Given the passionate correlation between art and life in this particular case, I'd have appreciated more intense, full-blooded readings. Lott was rather arch, as always. But she was so elegant and lovely that I didn't mind. She was herself. It was enough.

'Semele': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), in rep to 28 May.

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year