Semele | Opera review

Barbican, London

Of all the Handel soprano roles, Semele has Danielle de Niese's name on it. Does any other Handel leading lady get to play so much the comedienne, or flirt so unabashedly with the audience?

True to form, her performance for Christophe Rousset and his crisp Parisian ensemble Les Talens Lyriques had De Niese charming, cajoling and pouting her way through the role of the ambitious airhead who fails to realise that an affair with a deity may leave her literally as well as figuratively burnt. Vocally, however, the focus fell on Vivica Genaux, doubling as downtrodden Ino and devious Juno, and dispatching the latter's musical acrobatics with steely bravura.

Claire Debono, who made a sparkling impression in Cupid's two arias, will be a Semele herself if she can sort out her diction. That complaint could apply to several of the cast, the exception being Peter Rose, excellent in the two bass cameos. The surtitles, which should have been superfluous, were vital for decoding the French chorus's not-quite English.

The ensemble had just finished a run at Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. As so often when the Barbican imports a work staged fully elsewhere, there was unease about how dramatic this concert presentation was going to be. All were rooted at the front except for Semele in her aria bemoaning her insomnia, in which De Niese reclined on a chair at the back, bare-shouldered, bejewelled – and, for most of the audience, framed by two balding chorus members. One day the Barbican will give us some Handel that looks as good as it sounds.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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