Opera: The old, old story of girl meets god

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The Independent Culture
"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