"My life is now intensely connected to Handel's world..."
An English-language Handel opera? The composer himself called it an "opera after the manner of an oratorio," which partly explains its use of English – Handel's oratorio idiom – and the strong presence of the chorus. One reason the work has found many passionate supporters in our day is its uniquely modern feel. This comes to the fore in its seamless flow of textures from solo to ensemble, and from harpsichord accompaniment to percussion-filled orchestra sound. And it also emerges in the simultaneous depiction of various emotional states in ensembles such as the quartet of the first act – a foreshadowing of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
But there is another cause for the growing popularity of "Semele": its exquisitely topical libretto. William Congreve's language pulses with life, emotion, comedy and eroticism. He transports a mythological story with a psychological finesse that is worthy of today's best playwrights: the god Jupiter falls in love with the mortal Semele and promises to fulfill her every wish. Jupiter's wife Juno will have none of it and talks her rival into asking Jupiter to make her immortal, like the gods themselves. Semele does – and oversteps her boundaries. It is one wish that Jupiter cannot grant her...
Through many subtle touches, director Robert Carsen evokes both the British royals of today as well as the young and beautiful who are intoxicated by the pleasures of the senses. He has a perfect protagonist in the world-famous soprano Cecilia Bartoli as Semele. As Jupiter's latest conquest, Bartoli pulls out all the stops in her interpretation, which progresses from flirtatiousness to full-blown narcissism and, finally, to regret and introspection. It is Bartoli's evening, and her fiery temperament, effortless coloraturas and magnetic stage presence clearly seduce not only Jupiter, but also the audience.
In the form of Charles Workman, however, Jupiter is nearly as seductive, and he uses his light and buoyant tenor voice more to charm than to hurl bolts of vocal lightning. Birgit Remmert is a statuesque Juno and a truly royal schemer. Her servant Iris, portrayed by Isabel Rey, provides a delightfully slapstick-style counterpoint to her mistress's regal plotting. Equally impressive are the other soloists and, in particular, the outstanding chorus, whose every member fully participates in the action. Finally, it is the "La Scintilla" orchestra of the Zurich Opera that adds the truly magic note to this performance, as it shifts nimbly from warmth to brilliance under the sensitive direction of William Christie.