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NZ Opera’s stunning interpretation of Handel’s Semele

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Emma Pearson as Semele. Photo: Garry Brandon.

“Semele” by George Frideric Handel

New Zealand Opera

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell

Until November 6

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

God arrived at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell this week in the form of Jupiter who disrupted  the wedding ceremony of Semele the  daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, to Athamas.  Then he had some of his biker friends spirit Seleme to his heavenly realm so he can pursue his  adulterous affair with her. But this  coupling is only part of a larger love dilemma as we learn that Ino, Semele’s sister, is in love with Athamas and Jupiter’s wife Juno of course is incensed by the affair  and is determined to destroy the woman who has displaced her


Back in her palace, Semele is not entirely happy, realising  she is only a mortal and Juno (disguised as Ino) persuades her to ask Jupiter if she can become immortal.

Jupiter tries to dissuade Semele from this request but she insists and when appears in his godly form she is consumed by his power and dies, Ino returns to the world of mortals, marries Athamas and they live happily ever after and by some trick of the gods Semele’s ashes are transformed into Bacchus.

The story of Semele comes originally from Ovid’s Metamorphoses but Handel used a libretto which was written by William Congreve and combines  elements of Restoration drama, opera, and oratorio, managing to bring together  mythology, Christian iconography and hints at contemporary political events and ideas.

Even in the period of the Enlightenment there were still the problem of  mixing of the classes, at the upper levels of society, arranged marriages were more important than romantically based ones. These are notions have come down to the present as we saw with the marriage of Diana and Charles. There are also universal themes interwoven through the work – the desire for success and immortality, looking for love and seeking revenge. So the opera is something of a morality play while prying into the lives of the rich and famous.

At close to three hours this is a testing work for orchestra  and singers, but they all rose to the challenges and succeeded with a spectacular performance which was entertaining and enchanting. The New Zealand  Baroque Opera Orchestra  under Peter  Walls gave an energetic performance giving Handel’s music with its many Messiah-like tunes a very sympathetic reading.

Parts of the work are a bit tedious but the first act and most of the last act are filled with action and some lush, emotional singing.

Emma Pearson as Semele was outstanding bringing power and sensitivity to the part both with her acting and  voice which at various  times  conveyed sensuality, passion and wretchedness. She used her nimble soprano voice wonderfully, especially singing the beautiful Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?”.  Many of her arias were greatly enhanced by embellishments and a brilliant coloratura.

Sarah Castle both as the slightly wicked Juno and the solicitous Ino sang some of Handel’s great arias with precision and vibrancy.

Amitai Pati as Jupiter used his deep rich voice  great effect, capturing the nobility, obsession and ardour of his character.

Paul Whelan gave solid performances as Cadmus and Somnus while Stephen Diaz as Athamas gave a spirited take  on the part.

It was a brave production especially choosing to have it in Holy Trinity which doesn’t have the best of acoustics or good sight lines, However, the production team and directors, Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Jacqueline Coats pulled of a triumph  creating a stunning interpretation of one of the great Handel operas.

Semele Photo: Garry Brandon.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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