‘Handel’s sexiest opera” is how this performance of Semele was billed. There are, perhaps, higher bars: hearing, in English, a few light double entendres about what Jupiter’s been doing with his bolt is tame compared with how it must have been to a Georgian audience, accustomed to hearing such things safely couched in Italian.
Still, there’s plenty of sensuality – if not actual sexiness – in Handel’s music in general and Semele in particular, a quality given its due in this performance by conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. If not a revelation on the level of their Monteverdi trilogy two years ago, it was a classy evening, with a fine young cast and chorus clearly enjoying Thomas Guthrie’s perceptive semi-staging.
The real novelty was the venue: the recently reopened theatre in Alexandra Palace, massive yet quirky, a kind of Wilton’s Music Hall on steroids. The auditorium has been preserved in a state of “arrested decay”, with crumbly brickwork and flaking stucco. Spill out into the Palm Court during the interval and you could watch the Haringey Huskies training in the ice-rink next door.
Stamina was tested in both rooms; it was a long evening but worth it for the energised work Gardiner won from his forces. Louise Alder was a glowing, unusually sympathetic Semele who sang an especially beautiful Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” Gianluca Buratto’s velvety bass made his moments as Cadmus and Somnus something to relish. But Hugo Hymas’s sweet-sounding Jupiter was a fool to take on the mezzo Lucile Richardot’s entertainingly snarling Juno – a voice and a performer to be reckoned with.