There seems to be nothing more perfectly escapist then a flight of resplendent operatic fantasy. Nestled in the grounds of the Wormsley Estate, Garsington Opera creates the illusion of stepping into a world quite separate from the hustle and bustle that surrounds it. While only five minutes from the M40, at Garsington you will find yourself enclosed by a forest, with beautiful vistas and an audience decked out in evening attire milling about the grounds of this country estate. We were lucky enough to be bathed in sunshine and the experience of sitting by the lake, taking in the natural beauty of the setting was fabulous.
In fact, almost as fabulous as the "endless pleasure, endless love" that Semele receives at the ecstasy-laden heights of her journey in this opera. Roman mythology (and its Greek forbearer) is rich with tales of the wandering eyes of Jupiter and the transforming effect his has on his conquests, as well as the devastating outcome of angering a God. These two ideas are at the core of the narrative of Semele. Our titular character leaves behind her intended husband and is whisked away to the heavens as Jupiter's mistress. However, the fury of his wife, Juno, leads Semele down a path to her own destruction.
Semele is the lightest and, for the most part, most approachable of Handel's operas. Director Annilese Miskimmon's production successfully taps into the absurd comedy of the piece, with the production taking place in a mostly modern time and full of the playful touches that modernity can bring. Composed in 1744, the opera marries the sweeping majesty of Handel's music with grandiose choral numbers lifting the action, with a fascinatingly human heroine. Her downfall is one we can easily sympathise with and allows the opera to retain a grounded quality which is striking for a piece so reliant on the presences of Gods.
The aural quality of Semele was marvellous and standouts in the cast included a trio of female performers. In the lead role of Semele, Heidi Stober was fantastic, dexterously showing the transition from a strict bride-to-be, whose love is elsewhere, to an arrogant mistress to a God. She deservedly received fulsome applause at the end and many of the outstanding moments of the opera were a product of her performance. Equally good is Christine Rice as the perpetually pregnant, romantically-wronged queen of the Gods, Juno. She manages the low notes of the part skilfully and brings a fury to the role that is wonderful to watch. Finally Lilo Evans as the messenger of the gods, Iris, makes the most of her limited stage time, aiding a particularly enjoyable moment as Juno goes through labour. The rest of the leads are accomplished, particularly as part of an ensemble with the choral moments being suitably awe-inspiring.
Handel's score is sublime, sometimes even threatening to overpower proceeding and was performed by a skilled orchestra conducted flawlessly by Jonathan Cohen. Lyrically William Congreve's libretto has many fine lines, "Lay your doubts and fears aside, and for joys alone provide" being a particularly memorable, but it does often feel on the repetitive side. Can one criticise an iconic 18th century opera's libretto? It feels as sacrilegious as criticising some of the more questionable moments in Dickens or Shakespeare but as a relative newcomer to opera this reviewer feels the flaws of the libretto feel endemic of the slightness of the narrative at Semele's core.
There are moments of beauty in the design, by Nicky Shaw, including a sequence where the chorus enter holding orbs of light, as well as the first reveal of the astral backdrop at the end of the first act. The design also retains the humour of the opera, eg turning the attendants of Jupiter into flight attendants, complete with birds puppets. As an opera, Semele just about manages to successfully marry the tragedy of the character's hubris with the humour and absurd nature of a love triangle played out across the cosmos.
For a relative opera novice, Semele was a majestic slice of escapism. Handel's music is sublime and the lead performance from Heidi Stober was worth the visit to Garsington alone. While not quite achieving "endless pleasure" Semele was a grand night out at the opera.
As well as at Garsington, this year Semele will be screened for free as part of the Oxford Arts Festival on 1st July.