Tuesday, 6 July 2010


2/7/10, Theatre de Champs Elysees, Paris

It was, admittedly, absurdly extravagant to go all the way to Paris to see Semele after going all the way to Brussels to see it last year. And it becomes even more absurdly extravagant when (to make the trip worthwhile) you go to another opera, the ballet and three or four exhibitions as well. Not to mention deciding to book tickets for a concert performance of Semele in London six days later without realising it was the same cast and production...

But it's such a wonderful piece and (happily) grows on one with every hearing.

This was a revival of a David McVicar production from a few years ago, with Danielle de Niese newly-cast as Semele. She looks the part, playing her as a sort of coquettish 16-year old taken up by a much older, much more sophisticated man. There was a nice moment in the first act when the rivalrous sisters had a spat from which their father had to separate them, de Niese pointing "It was her" as he did so. And they giggled together convincingly when Ino was catapulted into heaven at Jove's command. She was sly, mischievous, self-mocking. In other words she can act as well as sing.

As to her voice... She pulled out all the stops for Myself I Shall Adore (pretending to hide the mirror, smirking as she gazed at herself) and for No, No I'll Take No Less especially. There are plenty of vocal pyrotechnics. But while the English tradition is to enunicate each syllable in the showpiece arias with crystal clarity ("Gay-hazing, gay-ayzing, gay-hay-hay-ay-ay-hay-hay-hayzing") Ms de Niese seems to give each note a different vowel sound. The purist in me suspects this may be cheating, but it's undeniably thrilling. On the other hand it makes it hard to hear the words -- something you could level at most of her performance.

That couldn't be said of the bass Peter Rose, who sang Cadmus the father and Somnus: you could hear every word and as Somnus he even managed to get the solemn Parisians to laugh.
There was a disappointing counter-tenor as the rejected bridegroom Athamas. Richard Croft as Jupiter didn't quite have the necessary heft for some of the role but sang Wheree'er You Walk with beauty and grace and got a deserved ovation.

Ino and Juno were sung by the mezzo Vivica Genaux. I'd assumed from her name that she was a local lass, but it turns out she's American too, born in Alaska. She was suitably villainous.

Endless Pleasure was sung by another soprano, Claire Debono, as Cupid. I had forgotten/failed to realise that the song was originally written for someone other than Semele (scarcely surprising really: it refers to her in the third person). After that ravishing aria at the end of Act One she doesn't have much to do, a problem resolved by McVicar who dressed her in sequin-covered scarlet and a pair of dark glasses plus long stick and had her mime the role of blind Cupid in subsequent scenes as Jupiter's hanger-on, alternating between Ariel-like manipulator and hapless victim (he was left fumbling after Semele knocked aways his stick during No No I'll Take No Less, a sign presumably that love was on the wane).

Having Cupid in the cast reminds you what an ensemble piece this is. And what a lot of great songs, too! Including Jupiter's I Must with Speed Amuse Her and Juno's Iris, Hence Away and a first act aria for Semele which I don't recall from earlier productions and which she sang solo in front of a drop curtain while the scene was changed behind it. It was a device McVicar used several times, and it worked perfectly in the highly artificial and stylised context of an 18th century work, though in the case of one of Juno's arias the curtains were closed not for a scene change but to draw a discreet veil over Jove and Semele's love-making. When they reopened he was smoking a post-coital cigar.

The principals were in immensely elaborate 18th century costume (or plain brown broadcloth for Cadmus and Athamas and for Ino); the chorus (men and women alike) in white tie and tails. The set, by Tanya McCallin, was a semi-circular back wall with three doorways; a central disc rose at an angle for the scenes set in heaven, an enormous bed covered in cushions at its centre on which Jove and Semele made love and Somnus slept. Towards the opera's end the bed had disappeared, and Semele made her final exit as she burns in Jupiter's fire through a circular trap while Jove held her cloak. A puff of smoke emerged.

It was a wittily-characterised production with sensible business, quite unlike the weird production at the Monnaie last year, presumably a reflection of the fact that McVicar has complete faith in the quality and dramatic carrying-power of his material.

The music came from Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques, however: who were also the band in Brussels. Not quite as nuanced a performance as John Eliot Gardner's, which we have on disc.

Jupiter was portrayed as a rich man who might just be starting to tire of this pretty little plaything he's acquired: so much so that at one point he takes off his black necktie and apparently contemplates using it as a garrotte, before employing it as a blindfold instead... and singing Where'er You Walk. That was the only point where the interpretation jarred (as in Idomeneo the other night): such a beautiful love song comes oddly from a character you've just seen exasperated.

It was a very hot night but the Parisians were dressed largely for comfort not speed, cool rather than elegant. Which was reassuring because the walk to the theatre (which is not, as billed, in the Champs Elysees but several blocks away) takes you past the likes of Dior and Chanel in the Av Montaigne and some seriously rich people.

It's also a beautiful theatre, and an historic one, with a spectacular art deco exterior, with massive square recessed panels and windows and three huge bas reliefs at the top, and an elegant curved moderne corner, but an art noueveau interior, with banisters and motifs on the doors of the boxes which could have come from Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I thought it was designed in the 1920s or even the 1930s. It turns out to have been built in 1913, and it's where Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had its notorious premiere.

Inside there's a dome filled with pastoral scenes of dancing and singing, packed with frankly sexy nudes and a series of inscriptions about music, opera etc which I couldn't entirely follow running round the bottom. There are four roundels dedicated to the orchestra, the choir, the sonata and the organ (the theatre has one, its pipes visible above and beside the proscenium).

Front of house space is generous though the bars undermanned and over-priced. The acoustic is lively (as evidence when someone dropped something during a quiet moment in Act 1). There is no opera pit as such, merely a simple step down from the front of the stalls.

The Arts Desk review of the show (with which I largely agree, including the slightly catty remarks about de Niese) is here:


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