Handel’s Semele at the Opera de Lille

You may not be in Paris or Berlin but, for Handel’s Semele, you cannot do better than the combination of Emmanuelle Haïm as conductor and Barrie Kosky as stage director. In any event, the Lille production came from the Berlin Komische Opera, though with a largely new cast.

Kosky’s prodigious talents embrace interpretive imagination as well as mastery of stagecraft; and both qualities were well to the fore in this offering. Semele may have its comic moments, but, as the production demonstrates, it is a serious piece about desire and disillusion, relationships and social isolation. The scenic basis for a penetrating evening of music theatre was designer Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon’s superb setting: a desolate abandoned property, badly damaged by fire, in which the mortals are enclosed, as if imprisoned by their past. The strewn ashes provide a pointer to Semele’s eventual fate at Jupiter’s hands. The atmosphere is murky and stultifying, notwithstanding frantic movements by the protagonists and the chorus of spectators. Thunder claps and some brilliant lighting effects (design Alessandro Carletti) indicate the presence above of the gods, though as we soon see, relationships there are no more comfortable.

Handel may be familiar territory for Mlle Haïm to exercise her redoubtable skills, but there was nothing routine in her passionate piloting of Le Concert d’Astrée chorus and orchestra. Her meticulous precision lent appropriate contours to the lines and phrases in the score, thus enhancing its dramatic content. To fully participate in Kosky’s conceptual approach, the soloists had to complement their vocal efforts with physical agility, and in these and other aspects, they all did remarkably well. Pride of place to Elsa Benoit in the title role. Highly volatile in her emotional outbursts, climbing up and down her coloratura ladder, she also threw herself around the stage, as though desperate to escape her human constraints.  Stuart Jackson was a convincing Jupiter both in physical appearance and in the mellifluous output of his fine tenor. Counter tenor Paul Antoine Bénos-Djian trilled most effectively, while being hassled by lovers, past or future. Ezgi Kutlu as Juno flounced majestically and, to the audience’s delight, wallowed in the sound of her rich chest voice to denounce Jupiter and his amatory exploits.

At the curtain, endless cheers for all – and so well deserved.