lust curdles to obsession in Barrie Kosky’s sex-drenched staging
Sex is everywhere in Handel’s Semele – an oratorio so scandalous, so stuffed with infidelity, and eroticism, that the composer’s contemporaries quickly recognised it for what it really was: “a bawdy opera” in the most diaphanous of musical disguises.
All that is here in this unsettling production from Berlin’s Komische Oper, streamed for the first time on Marquee TV. But director Barrie Kosky amps it up to such a pitch that lust curdles into obsession, groping hands turn into fists, and an unexpectedly brutal tragedy emerges from the ashes of Handel’s comedy.
When Semele is whisked away in a fiery thunderclap to become Jupiter’s mistress on Mount Olympus, she’s sure she has got her happy ending. But the mortal reckons without the wrath of Juno, who plots to turn her husband’s lust against him and rid herself of her rival.
Kosky’s staging flips straight to the back page. The curtain rises on the smouldering heap of ash that’s all that remains of our heroine. A figure emerges from it – a ghost-Semele, trapped in the charred ruins of Jupiter’s baroque palace, forced to watch the story play out in smoky flashbacks.
It’s a frame that changes everything. The ironies of Congreve’s libretto (“Endless pleasure, endless love”) emerge sharpened to arrowheads, while the sanctimonious chorus – now writhing in orgiastic celebration, now tutting over the audacity of a mortal who punched above her weight – becomes the engine of an opera that’s all about manipulation and control.
Far from the usual good-time girl, Nicole Chevalier’s bruised, blood-smeared Semele is a victim who escapes her father and fiancé’s dominance only to find herself trapped in an abusive relationship with Jupiter (a chilling turn from English tenor Allan Clayton – malevolence with a sashay and a smirk). Neither singer is afraid to break Handel’s lines into fragments, to make them husky, hoarse, even choked in scenes.
Things push a little far in Ezgi Kutlu’s wildly sung Juno, pulled back by Katarina Bradic’s enveloping, lyrical Ino and countertenor Eric Jurenas’s unruffled coloratura as the rejected Athamas – all efficiently supported by conductor Konrad Junghanel.
Streaming throughout January on operavision.eu