One of Jennifer Vyvyan’s most notable Handel recordings was a Semele made for L’Oiseau Lyre in 1955 at a time when the score was unknown beyond the world of scholarship. First performed in 1744, Semele vanished from performance until a Cambridge student show in 1925, and there was no professional staging in modern times until a 1959 Sadlers Wells production. So JV’s recording can be said to have been instrumental in bringing the piece back into public awareness.
It’s also a reminder of how fearsomely difficult the coloratura writing for the title role becomes in the closing act; and it was certainly a challenge for the young soprano I heard singing it last night – in a modest, pub-theatre production running in Highgate, north London done by the semi-pro Hampstead Garden Opera.
But HGO’s Semele isn’t bad. The soprano in question, Robyn Parton (currently a postgrad at the RCM) had a warm sound and in fact handled most of her gymnastic requirements with cool accomplishment: give her another few years of hard technical graft and she’ll be worth hearing on a larger stage.
Her Jove, Edmund Hastings, played the king of the gods as a teen-idol heart-throb: silent, sultry but sensitive. And when he wasn’t silent (the production kept him onstage for long periods without anything to do or sing) the voice was seriously attractive, albeit in the English Oxbridge choral-scholar way of light, thin tone. A postgrad at the RAM, he’s already established on the oratorio circuit and I suspect that’s where his future lies. With more work on his articulation – the coloratura was loose – I could hear him as a future Evangelist in a Bach Passion.
Three other young voices stood out: Daisy Brown as Iris, Tom Verney as Athamas, and a wonderfully open, free (though as yet undeveloped) bass from Bartholomew Lawrence as Somnus.
Drawbacks: the pace was slow, musically and dramatically, with the longeur of a pointless dumb-show at the very start. And for such a modest staging it got entangled in its own attempts to be radical and edgy. Playing the royal family of Thebes like the Royle family of British television, congenitally gathered round the box on a sofa, was cute; but the idea of heaven as a kingdom of bubble wrap was tacky. And having Semele smothered to death with a pillow rather than scorched by the magnificence of Jove’s revealed presence skewed the ending. Jove may be a serial filanderer but he’s not a homicidal psychopath. At least, not in this opera.
That said, you don’t get very many chances to see a Semele on stage; so if the idea of this one interests you, don’t hold back. It continues April 13-16 at 7.30pm and April 17, 4pm at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village. Details: www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com