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Semele, Théâtre de Champs-Élysées | reviews, news & interviews

Semele, Théâtre de Champs-Élysées

Semele, Théâtre de Champs-Élysées

Genaux and De Niese among a superb cast and a pretty seductive McVicar staging

Juno (Genaux, right), Iris (Azzaretti, left): 'Genaux is a very classy act, with a molasses-like voice that sometimes one feels should be harder to shift'Alabaro Yanez

David McVicar's revival production of Handel's oratorio-cum-opera Semele isn't terribly clever or beautiful or impressive, or fecund with ideas or detail or emotion. But it does work. It does tell the story.

And what brings colour to its initially rather pasty, unappealing face, and fire and heft to its anaemic belly, is sex and - best of all for those of you who will only be able to catch it in concert at the Barbican next week - one of the most impressive Handel casts I've heard for years.

Appropriately for a production as deliberately confused in concept as this one - where the characters are neither divine, nor human, nor symbolic, nor Enlightenment but hover somewhere between all possible poles - we start in the fog, albeit a glamorously dry-ice fog. It clears to reveal a scene of complete WAG-like tastefulness. This still, careful, Nineties minimalism - white amphitheatre, chairs, balcony - gives no sense of the turbulence of the opening scenario: the cliffhanger wedding, the horrifically solipsistic bride, Semele, having second thoughts, the wretched lover, Ino, in desperation. Rousset doesn't help by driving Les Talens Lyrique forcefully, straightening every possible curve, cutting short every possible sigh. It was twiddle-your-thumbs time until the entry of Claire Debono's blind Cupid, I'm afraid.

With the emergence of this snaky, sexy, sequenced, Enlightenment glam rocker (pure Peter Greenaway) - whose glistening red tails and bizarre cavorting (not quite hash-induced, not quite cocaine-induced, not quite lost, just weird) mirrored perfectly the slinky bejewelled duplets on oboe and strings that Rousset was conjuring up - and her knowingly stagy, androgynous cabaret performance in dark glasses, the whole production took off. And it repeatedly took off whenever she returned, even when she wasn't singing.  The rest of the production - which never went one way or the other, surreal or real, divine or earthly, symbolic or natural - couldn't match up to this inspired idea, which burnt so bright that it consumed all around it.

But it did do enough to facilitate the basics of this cautionary tale on being careful about what you wish for and to project an idea of the lustful characters and the singing. Debono delivered the finest couple of stand-alone arias of the night in her two gem-like exhortations. Richard Croft's Jupiter, a male playing to wife-battering type: horny, self-pitying and violent, dispatched his part expertly. Peter Rose's incredibly solid, fabulously old-school interventions as a stentorian Cadmus and comically sleepy Somnus, reminded one how important a good bass is to the working of a Handel opera - and how rarely we hear one of this calibre.

Danielle de Niese's Semele should have been the star turn. And in many ways she was. In terms of coloratura, control and word-setting, she shone. And her voice is bigger, stronger than I have ever heard it. But one always gets the feeling with De Niese that she thinks she's a better, sexier, more watchable performer than she really is. She's Jessica Rabbit-pretty, for sure, but she's also Jessica Rabbit-subtle too. Flutter, flutter, slinky, slinky. It's like watching a Benny Hill girl at times. And even her voice has its unsubtleties, its pop sensibilities and pop slides. In fact, she goes so much of the way to making a nice sound that many forget how far away she is from making a truly brilliant sound.

When she's singing with Vivica Genaux (Juno and Ino), however, the discrepancy starts to show. Genaux is a very classy act, with a molasses-like voice that sometimes one feels should be harder to shift. And she always does more with less. Jaël Azzaretti was a characterful, springy, amusing sidekick to Genaux's Juno. Stephen Wallace's Athamas, small, timid at first, flourished as things progressed. The choir were stylish and incomprehensible as the French are inclined to be.

Meanwhile, the production trudged on in its cold, abstract furrow, attempting to conjure up some new ritual - neither Greek, nor Enlightenment, nor modern, nor entertaining, but a combination of all - to little effect. And it fell to Cupid once again to save the day, which she did by lolling onto stage in her addled fashion with a pram cradling a bottle of champagne and presenting it to the newly-weds. The evening deserved one too.

One always gets the feeling with De Niese that she thinks she's a better, sexier, more watchable performer than she really is

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It isn't a new production, it's a revival of a show we created back in 2004; read your programme. I haven't seen Graham Vick's Tamerlano so your suspicions can be laid to rest. I am sorry you had such a lousy evening. It seemed that most of the audience disagreed with you. Everyone is entitled to their opinions after all; even opinions as lazy, spiteful and foolish as yours

You're right. I apologise - the press desk had run out of programmes. In which case, Graham Vick's Tamerlano looks suspiciously like your production. And I didn't have a lousy evening at all. I thought the show worked rather well. It just wasn't clever or beautiful or impressive - which is no bad thing in my book.

Copy corrected.

This is the second time in as many weeks that I've seen someone involved with a production respond to a critical review on these pages. In both cases I could see why those who responded might have felt aggrieved by something said, be it a factual innacuracy or a cutting opinion. They'd both have been better advised, however, to rise above it and retain some dignity. I've not seen this production of Semele - I've only read the review and seen the response, but from this evidence Mr McVicar sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant and self important bully.

Dear Andrew Thanks for your comment. No, I am neither of those things; sorry not to conform to the cliche. Neither have I responded to any criticism before, either in the press or on the net. Mr Toronyi-Lalic made some comments in his review that were inaccurate and inappropriate and I just felt (for once!) like pointing them out. As to his opinion of my show.... well, as I said, everyone's entitled. Just as I am entitled to consider those opinions to be wrong and (for once!) to say so. Thanks

Personally I think artists should be encouraged to bite back or comment - why not? There is no reason for anyone "to lose their dignity" - depends how it's done- and it promotes debate. As it happens I didn't think it was a bad review at all "one of the most impressive Handel casts I've heard for years" . And he's seen a lot. You should read Igor's review of Philip Glass's opera if you want to read a stinker. As it happens I was lucky enough to catch some of the rehearsals, without costumes and in a review of Zaide for TAD said David's Semele promised to be "thrilling". I look forward to seeing the Barbican version next week, and sorry we don't get to see the staged version.

David and Peter - I certainly think that artists should respond if they don't like what is said. I just hate rudeness and aggression, though, and think that there is far too much of it about. When I said 'rise above it', I meant that I just think an artist will come out of it much better if they respond in a more measured and reasonable way. If they can keep their cool then they'll come out looking the better party in the end. I can fully understand why an apparently ill informed and ill considered (not accusing Igor of that, btw) would rile someone who'd spent many hard hours working on something, and I think most reasonable people would as well.

Bravo David McVicar, I am an ordinary impoverished fan, one of those up in the gods or with a standing ticket, and too many times have I read mealy mouthed crits and wondered if they had actually seen the same show. Opera critics seem to find it hard to express enthusiasm, particularly of anything the audience really enjoys. About De Niese in particular they can never say anything kind, though it is hard to think of a more charismatic and dramatically gifted performer in opera today. Perhaps it's intellectual snobbery that imagines that opera is a rarified pleasure and so anything that an audience really responds to, must be in someway debased. They still often prefer to compare a production or performance to some "definitive" version preferably lost in the mists of time. Ordinary theatre critics stopped behaving like this ages ago. Comfort yourself Mr McVicar with the reviews by the Turin critics of premiere of La Boheme. They hated it. "La bohème will leave only a slight trace in the history of our opera" is the money quote.

Quite a rant, James. Have you even seen this show? Have you been reading the enthusiastic raves here for Tosca, Meistersinger and - almost - Manon, to take a few recent examples? You digress too much. But I see you're happy to read the poor critics and, in the case of Don G, write your own criticism.

Please note that all of the other singers in Semele are in their 40's and Danielle de Niese is only 30 years old. Give her a break. She stole the show. Viveca Genaux is 41 years old.

Are you a mind reader? How would one know what anyone is thinking? If you know anything about opera staging, the director gives you an idea of what he wants and you try to bring that idea to the stage. toronnyi toronyi: Are you a mind reader? How would anyone know what anyone is thinking. If you know anything about staging, you will know that Toronyi-lalic: Are you a mind reader? How does anyone know what anyone thinks of themselves merely by watching them portray a character. If you know anything about staging, the director gives the actor an idea of what he wants and the actor tries to bring that idea to life. If in the process that character becomes more sexy and watchable than the rest, then so be it. You are obviously a failed performer or a jealous colleague. Mediocrity cannot recognize genius. the director gives the actor an idea of what he wants and the actor tries to bring that idea to life. If in the process, one comes across as being sexier, or more watchable than the other performers, then so be it. You are obviously a jealous colleague, or a failed performer. Mediocrity cannot recognise genius. Didnt you know that?

I've heard of musical refrains in a poetic text but I don't think you've quite got the hang of them, Lynn, dear. If the director was unnecessarily nasty in his last line, I suspect that what you have to say here COULD be summed up in one slightly less intemperate sentence. Of course - all critics are failed directors! Why hadn't I thought of it before?

@John, no I'm not a critic, just a fan. I only comment on those shows I've enjoyed, that have connected with me. I don't think I have much to offer on shows I have not enjoyed. We all have artistic blind spots, so I doubt you'd be interested in how much Wagner and Britten leave me cold. And I don't write mean minded snark, which is what I really dislike about much opera criticism, and many more of the comments on threads like these. Unlike us commenters critics often have to write about what they did not enjoy, but a little humility would not go amiss particularly when the audience clearly does enjoy the show. Critics after all, though they can perform a useful function, are still fundamentally parasites on the body of theatre. They should have some respect for the amazing amount of work dedication and skill that goes into every show they see.

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