Semele, Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture

It begins with a royal wedding; it ends with a rumpus. No change there, then. Not content with a prince, Semele is swept off her feet by a king, a god and a serial adulterer to boot. By Jupiter, it will all end in tears. And does - briefly.

It begins with a royal wedding; it ends with a rumpus. No change there, then. Not content with a prince, Semele is swept off her feet by a king, a god and a serial adulterer to boot. By Jupiter, it will all end in tears. And does - briefly.

But this is the wonderful world of 18th-century operatic satire, and, with a libretto by no less than William Congreve, Handel's Semele turns tears to laughter at the eleventh hour. Semele dies of blind ambition, but Jupiter refuses to lament his part in her downfall and declares that his union with her shall result in the birth of Bacchus, the god of wine. As a fleet of flunkies delivers magnum upon magnum of champagne, the last thing Juno, the queen, sees is Jupiter with one hand on another courtier's rump.

It's detail such as this that made Robert Carsen's witty, stylish and stately production one of the big hits of English National Opera's 1999 season. It's been too long returning but, better late than never, it does so in a revival by John LaBouchardière that is cast from even greater strength than before, with all its sparkle and surprise intact. The striking thing about Carsen's staging is the elegance with which it balances laughter and tears; pathos and bathos. It was ever a tricky balance, but Carsen and his designer, Patrick Kinmouth, kept it simple. Jean Kalman's original lighting, revived here by Mike Gunning, made magic of half-shades and shadow. At the close of Act II, when Jupiter invokes the music of the spheres to distract Semele from all thoughts of immortality, he, quite literally, gives her the world - an illuminated globe passed around the assembled company like the biggest and most precious of the baubles Jupiter has yet bestowed on her.

It's a beautiful moment, coming so soon upon arguably the greatest of all Handel airs, Jupiter's serene "Where E'er You Walk" - and for that, in a bedchamber suddenly illuminated by myriad stars, ENO have secured no less a star than Ian Bostridge. This is quite a casting coup and it comes into its own with this crucial number. Bostridge may not be everybody's idea of the serial seducer - his singing isn't sexy - but it's achingly beautiful and exquisitely enunciated. In the aria's quiet reprise his shining tone, gorgeously embellished with tasteful ornamentation, was transfixing.

The object of his desire is Carolyn Sampson's delicious Semele. "Semele: I'm in Heaven!" screams the newspaper headline as she's whisked away for Jupiter's pleasure. Hers, too. She despatches that most voracious of arias - "Endless Pleasure, Endless Love" - swathed in a bath towel. It's only a matter of time - namely an especially tantalising final cadence - before it's allowed to slip. Sampson's agile soprano has a bell-like clarity. Her legato is enticing, her coloratura exciting; the vocal line itself becomes an object of desire. "Myself I Shall Adore" was preposterously good. Heightened by the exasperation of her arch-enemy and rival, Juno (disguised at this point as her sister), the ornamentation grew in direct proportion to her vanity. And the fearless abandon with which Sampson delivered it was enough to make even parodies of the genre - like Leonard Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" (from Candide) - seem, well, straight.

Carsen's way with Juno - a smashing comedy performance from Patricia Bardon - is to portray her as just another queen in a headscarf. Her long-suffering lady-in-waiting, Iris (the always excellent Janis Kelly), is invariably several steps behind with the suitcase, road map and whisky. The conductor, Laurence Cummings, the director of the London Handel Festival, brings a vigorous authenticity and relish to the proceedings. All that's missing are the corgies.

26 November; 1, 16 and 18 December (020-7632 8300)

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