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Watch Semele from Garsington Opera

2 October 2017

Handel's Semele is a love story with a twist: the god Jupiter is captivated by the beauty of the all-too-human Semele. Composed in 1744, the opera features some of Handel’s most exquisitely beautiful music. Watch Garsington Opera's summer 2017 production in full below, until 2 April 2018.

Synopsis

ACT ONE

Cadmus prepares for the marriage of his daughter Semele to Athamas but she has been inventing any possible obstacle to the arrangement, as she is in love with the god Jupiter.

Semele’s sister, Ino, reveals her secret love for Athamas. Cadmus hears that Semele has been mysteriously whisked away to unknown realms. Semele revels in her new-found pleasures.

ACT TWO

Juno, goddess of marriage and children, is furious at her husband Jupiter’s infidelity and discovers from her helper, Iris, that Jupiter has built a pleasure palace for Semele. Juno swears vengeance on Semele, and decides to enlist the help of Somnus, god of sleep.

Semele longs for Jupiter’s return. He arrives and reassures her of his love, but realises that she has dangerous ambitions of immortality. In order to distract her he uses his godly powers to pacify her, and summons Ino to keep her company.

ACT THREE

Juno and Iris manage to rouse Somnus from his slumber. Juno orders Somnus to give Jupiter a dream that will consume him with such a passion for Semele that he will do whatever she asks.

Disguised as Ino, Juno gives Semele a mirror that makes her think she is the most beautiful creature in existence. She convinces Semele that she must refuse to return Jupiter’s love until he agrees to give her whatever she wants. She should insist that he comes to her bed not as a mortal but in his full godly glory. Semele agrees.

Jupiter is so desperate for Semele that he agrees to her conditions but is horrified by her demands as he knows that giving in to them will result in her death.

Juno exults in her victory. Semele realises the folly of what she has done – too late. Ino is horrified by Semele’s fate. Apollo appears to announce that Semele has left a legacy for the world: Bacchus, god of wine.

Robert Murray as Jupiter and Heidi Stober as Semele. Photo: Johan Persson

Credits

Recorded with support from Arts Council England.

Cast

THE HUMANS
Semele - Heidi Stober
Cadmus - David Soar
Athamas - Christopher Ainslie
Ino - Jurgita Adamonytė
Priest – Christian Valle

THE GODS
Jupiter - Robert Murray
Juno - Christine Rice
Iris - Llio Evans
Somnus - David Soar
Apollo - Mikael Onelius

Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Crew

Conductor - Jonathan Cohen
Director - Annilese Miskimmon
Designer - Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan
Movement Director - Sarah Fahie

Heidi Stober as Semele, with the chorus. Photo: Johan Persson

In conversation: Jonathan Cohen and Annilese Miskimmon talk to Henrietta Bredin

Conductors and directors tend to lead peripatetic lives so it can be hard to pin them down. In this instance, the conductor – Jonathan Cohen – was briefly in London in between performance dates with his ensemble Arcangelo, and the director – Annilese Miskimmon – was in Copenhagen, packing up to leave for her new job as head of Norwegian Opera in Oslo.

There’s a fascinating overlap between the nature of a god and the nature of a human
Annilese Miskimmon

With the help of Skype and the loan of a room at the Royal Academy of Music, we managed a three-way conversation and plunged straight into a discussion about Greek myths and the fact that the myth of Semele is not as familiar with audiences today as it would have been in 1744, when Handel’s work was first performed.

"It is true," says Miskimmon, "that people would have known the story very well and have been intrigued by its reimagining. The plot revolves around the interplay between gods and humans so there’s a fascinating overlap between the nature of a god and the nature of a human and the challenge is to present those things on stage.

"I love the fact that we’re performing in a venue that doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for stage trickery so we have to find ways around that, with a bit of good old-fashioned theatrical magic.

"Semele is a human with aspects of the divine about her and the gods are able to wander about and do what they like, only revealing their true nature when they choose, and on occasion they are just as foolish and vulnerable as humans. Handel is wonderfully clever at creating musical language that expresses these things and makes subtle differences."

Cohen says: "I think Handel understands that the gods are metaphors somehow; they represent what we don’t understand. In Semele there’s Somnus, the god of sleep, and that idea gives Handel just the most fantastic opportunity to indulge his creative imagination, and he gives the bassoons this wonderfully lethargic, sleepy music.

"And although they would have known the story of Semele, audiences were a bit perplexed by this piece. When it was written, Handel was presenting oratorios in London and this was performed in Lent. It wasn’t immediately popular because people weren’t sure what it was. Was it an opera? Was it an oratorio?

"Not many operas have ten choruses in them like this has. Audiences probably expected a religious theme and what they got was a secular theme from mythology with veiled moralistic judgements thrown in, although Handel portrays characters in an entirely non-judgemental way. He’s extremely compassionate and he presents Semele as naïve rather than as a scheming, bad person."

Although they would have known the story of Semele, audiences were a bit perplexed by this piece
Jonathan Cohen

As he did not have access to stage machinery and special effects, Handel poured all his imaginative genius into creating musical images. "It’s wonderfully pastoral," says Cohen. "When Jupiter sings his gloriously beguiling song of seduction to Semele, 'Where e’er you walk', he’s not showing off a panoply of godly tricks. He’s conjuring up pictures of a perfect setting for their love, with flowers and streams and a sense of the breeze blowing through the trees."

Miskimmon agrees: "And the pavilion theatre at Wormsley is surrounded by that sort of an idyllic landscape. You can actually see out, before the light goes, beyond the stage at either side, to exactly that sort of an English pastoral view – glimpses of grass and flowers and branches.

"There’s something so joyless about certain elements of Christianity in its rigour and certainty; I think that the reason the Greek myths are such an inspiration is that there is a life force running through them that is easier to tap into as a creative inspiration, no matter whether you’re a painter or a writer or a composer.

"None of the characters in Semele, whether human or god, is portrayed as a cliché or a stereotype. Handel is psychologically clever as well as musically inventive."

"There’s not a simple or one-sided view of anything in a great work of art," says Cohen. "You put yourself in the shoes of Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro and you see that maybe the most moving moment in the whole opera is a tiny scene about a young girl’s worry about finding a pin, which of course represents so much more than that.

"In Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse, one of the most moving moments is the suicide of a glutton. The great composers put themselves into everyone’s shoes – it’s a validation of humanity."

Llio Evans as Iris and Christine Rice as Juno. Photo: Johan Persson
Heidi Stober as Semele. Photo: Johan Persson

About Garsington Opera

Garsington Opera stages a summer opera festival each June - July in the romantic setting of Wormsley, a traditional English country estate owned by the Getty Family. The very best singers from around the world perform at the festival each season, as well as many rising stars from the UK.

Just an hour from London, near High Wycombe, Garsington Opera is renowned for productions of the highest quality, housed in a spectacular Opera Pavilion with superb acoustics and unique views of the beautiful gardens and Chiltern Hills beyond.

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