Saturday 10 July 2010

Semele at the Barbican

On Thursday, Christoph Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques presented Handel's Semele at the Barbican. The performance was based on the staged performances at the Theatre Champs Elysees, directed by David McVicar. The Barbican performance was just in concert, but the singers made entrances and exits and sang without music, addressing each other and reacting. So the result was rather more dramatic than some performances.

Rousset gave us a rather comprehensive version of the opera, including the aria for Cupid from Act 2 and an aria from Act 1 for Athamas which is often cut. This, combined with a rather lax attitude to timing of intervals, plus Rousset's rather moderate tempi, meant that we had rather a long evening. Starting at 6.30pm and finishing nearly 4 hours later. Except that it didn't start at 6.30pm, Rousset finally lifted his baton at 6.40pm. And each interval was extended by a mysterious gap, with audience seated, waiting. There was obviously plenty of space for applause between arias.

What the performance lacked was impetus. Individual moments were lovely, but Rousset seemed too content to allow things to jog along, in a relaxed manner. You can import crispness and dramatic coherence to Semele, by keeping the dramatic flow going and/or cutting discreetly. Neither seemed to happen.

There was plenty to enjoy on the way of course, because the cast was extremely strong. The star should have been Danielle de Niese as Semele. De Niese is a singer who has bags of personality, which reaches both her stage persona and her voice, so that you get a complete package. She is undoubtedly attractive and popular. She worked hard. Too hard in fact. I was frequently too conscious of how much she was pushing her sexy persona, with wide-eyed appeals, sexy pouting, tantrums and contrived sulky behaviour. Her opening aria, The morning lark had a lot of business with her hands imitating a bird. And in Myself I shall adore her antics with a mirror, no matter how amusing, threatened to de-stabilise the aria. By the end of the evening I was having to work hard not to get annoyed

All this would not have mattered if her musical performance had been spot on. But though De Niese is talented and sexy, her coloratura was rather smudgy and no-where near as pin-sharp as that of some of her co-singers. She was best in the more lyrical items. In fact, one of the showpiece arias, Endless Pleasure was sung not by De Niese, but by

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