The Organ

Handel's Semele: English National Opera

1st December 2004

Semele is now so firmly established in the Handel canon that it is difficult to realise just how unpopular it was in the composer's own day. Perhaps something of the original problem was highlighted in ENO's revival with a voluptuously nubile Carolyn Sampson flaunting herself outrageously before Ian Bostridge's cynical Jupiter. He may seriously lust after her - and makes his passion very obvious to all concerned - but as the final moments show, she is merely a passing flame, quickly replaced.

This cynicism gives Robert Carsen's production, here revived by John La Bouchardière, a real strength and serious underpinning which helps to carry both the overt humour and the more deeply-felt emotions. There are moments of stunning beauty - Where'er you walk, virtually all of Semele's solos, Ino's act one solo - which are atmospherically lit by Mike Gunning to draw all of our attention to the music.

And more than anything else this revival was musically magnificent. Laurence Cummings has a rapidly increasing reputation as one of our finest Handelians and here he proved it with a sureness of touch which moulded the long acts into seamless structures. The orchestra never seemed too small for the house yet carried with a clarity and force rare for modern instruments. The continuo section - organ, harpsichord, cello and theorbo - had been raised up to almost poke out of the pit and thus carried with extra panache. If I ever needed an example of how important Handel's use of the organ is within oratorio, this production would surely end all argument!

Carolyn Sampson is an ideal Semele, totally secure in coloratura and ornamentation, musically alert to inflection and able to spin the most beautiful of lines. Her long Myself I should adore could so easily seem interminable in the hands of a lesser intelligence but she makes each repeat a new understanding of the text. To be able to do this and produce a character who often appears vacuous and air-headed, totally out of her depth, yet sympathetic, is masterly.

Jupiter is yet another character who could have been written for Ian Bostridge. His aristocracy and power shines through yet his ability to play the little-boy-lost to gain Semele's sympathy is rakishly convincing. He uses the music to seduce and control her and the situations surrounding her.

Morag Boyle, standing in for Patricia Bardon as Juno, not only proved to have the voice for the part but thoroughly enjoyed being Queen for a night, showing a very real sense of humour. Let us hope ENO will realise this potential and use her more frequently.

With such musical finesse on offer the smaller parts were rather over-shadowed, though there was nothing small scale about Anne Marie Gibbons' Ino or Robin Blaze's Athamas. The chorus were in fine form, particularly given that they are frequently required to sing up-stage and looking anywhere other than at the conductor.

A triumph then, and one which will hopefully be equalled next spring when ENO mount Jephtha. Handel belongs in the theatre and it is a real pleasure to be able to experience him under such splendid circumstances.