Opera: The old, old story of girl meets god

SEMELE ENO COLISEUM LONDON

"MYSELF I shall adore," sings Semele with fabulous immodesty in the final act of Handel's wonderful opera. This is the apogee of her vanity, the moment of her undoing, and as ever, Handel elevates the frivolity to high art. The breathtaking self-regard of the coloratura is, in itself, like a mirror-image, dazzling echo effects tossing phrases back and forth as Semele is lost - quite literally - in self-admiration.

Rosemary Joshua sang it with terrific charm and abandonment in Robert Carsen's handsome staging (first seen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1996). Her embellishments seemed to proliferate in direct accordance with her dizzying conceit. Glitter and be gay, gayer, gayest.

But is that all there is to Semele? Good-time girl with delusions of immortality sees the error of her foolish ways and is reborn in the form of Bacchus, god of wine, to bring untold pleasure to all? Well, yes, that is about it. And yet we are charmed and touched by her plight. In a sense, we participate in her dreams, refusing to accept, as she does, that she is but a plaything of the gods. And in that, Carsen succeeds, as good productions do, in weighting the frivolity and the satire with a dash of wonder and compassion.

Semele's final moments, expiring on the royal mantle she truly believes is rightly hers, is strangely moving. Handel doesn't indulge her demise with a full-blown exit aria. Her accompanied recitative, albeit of hypnotic beauty, is but a footnote. And even that serial-adulterer Jupiter emerges with some dignity. For sure, he cruelly exploits Semele's gullibility, allowing her to believe that what is his is hers. Don't they all? But he does so openly. He offers her the world - at the close of act two she literally holds it in her hand - but she wants the moon and stars, too.

Actually, this is the kind of production Semele might have designed for herself. It's cool, it's chic, it's straight from the pages of Vogue magazine, circa Cecil Beaton's heyday. A kind of mythological high society. Patrick Kinmonth's palatial set - a midnight-blue room with one mightily auspicious doorway, the portal to momentous events unfolding beyond - is impressively versatile. With a click of Jupiter's fingers, myriad stars bring Arcadian night to its empty walls.

Carsen uses the over-dressed formality of this exclusive and slightly surreal world of society weddings, royal encounters, and red carpets to great effect. At one and the same time, he deploys it to heighten his stage-blocking of the opera's many choruses, while mocking its absurdity.

So Semele, caught in the flash-bulbs of public attention on her wedding day, slips from the frame of one "photograph" to share her dilemma with us. And later, when news arrives that Jupiter - in the form of an eagle - has carried her off, the somewhat po-faced recitative is amusingly offset by the arrival of the daily papers, banner headlines proclaiming: "By Jove!", "Semele: I'm in Heaven!", "Where Eagles Dare".

The Olympian grandeur of the production sits well in the Coliseum, but the price we pay in this house is a lack of musical immediacy. Carsen's big gestures and the theatre's big acoustic do spread Handel about. Conductor Harry Bicket does his level best to keep him in focus, both in and out of the pit, but the choral counterpoint is seriously compromised, and even the strongest of the principals are to some extent diminished by the scale.

Rosemary Joshua has made the title role very much her own, delighting in the sensuousness and sheer naughtiness of her music ("Endless Pleasure" is delivered in a bath towel draped to slip conveniently from her naked form). John Mark Ainsley's Jupiter gives us the most contained and authoritative singing of the evening, "Where'er you walk" blessed with exquisite embellishments. And the excellent Janis Kelly is a scene-stealing Iris - the Queen's put-upon attendant, armed with photographic evidence of Jove's infidelities and even maps of his whereabouts. The Queen - Juno (Susan Bickley) - is, well, The Queen. Coronet, spectacles, that handbag, and even the headscarf and wellies. No corgi, though.

While the champagne flows and flows, courtesy of Bacchus, in the closing moments, there's a delicious pay-off as she spots Jove yet again with his hands where they ought not to be. Freeze frame.

Box office: 0171 632 8300; `Semele' will be broadcast live simultaneously on BBC2 and Radio 3, 7pm, 15 May

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions