Robert Carsen’s clean, refined production of Handel’s Semele originated in Aix, was recorded in Zürich and eventually made it’s way to Vienna and Chicago. In many ways it is classic Carsen. It’s elegant and uncluttered, is strong on the detailed Personenregie, has a consistent design concept but isn’t really pushing a concept driven agenda. It’s also quite funny without descending to priapic donkeys. Also there are lots of chairs.
Carsen has set the production in Britain in the 1950s. In the first scene there are courtiers in black tie and the first appearance of Juno has her dressed like Queen Elizabeth in the photograph that use to grace every school, government office or officers’ mess in the Empire. “Hence Iris, hence away” involves a canoe paddle (surely for the only time in opera) and an (anachronistic) BA ticket and so through to Jupiter’s final appearance in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet.
Musically this is very fine. William Christie conducts the Scintilla of the Zürich Opera House Orchestra (an inner circle of the regular band who have made a study of period performance technique which is a great idea) and the results are excellent. It’s every bit as good as if Christe had one of his regular HIP outfits in the pit. The chorus too is excellent. I’ve noticed the Zürich chorus’ facility with English before and once again the itonation and phrasing is spot on. All of the principals are up to the task, though not all manage the perfection of English of the chorus. Anton Scharinger sings both Cadmus and Somnus and is rock solid commanding as Cadmus and slightly vulnerable and funny as Somnus. Charles Workman sings beautifully as Jupiter and is a decent actor too. Thomas Michael Allen sounds a bit reedy to start with in the countertenor role of Athamas but warms up OK. There’s very good comic chemistry between Isabel Rey’s Iris and Birgit Remmert’s haughty, spiteful Juno. And then there is Cecilia Bartoli’s Semele. The diminutive Bartoli (head and shoulders shorter than Remmert) throws herself into the part physically and vocally. Is it the purest of Handel singing? Maybe not but I fancy it’s the sort of thing Handel’s patrons came hoping to hear. The ornaments in the repeat of “Myself I shall adore” for example are utterly insane. It’s over the top but great fun and perhaps the perfect foil to the coolish production design.
The Blu-ray package is good. The picture is 16:9 1080i and is top notch bar a few motion blur effects. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound is very good indeed. There are no extras and documentation consists of listing, synopsis and a one page essay by Carsen. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese subtitles. Video direction, by Felix Breisach, is pleasantly unobtrusive. The production isn’t big on grand tableaux so focussing the camera on the principals most of the time works fine.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable and well presented performance though maybe not for the purest of Handel purists. Regular readers will notice that this is the first time that screen caps from a Blu-ray have appeared here. We have the technology!