In contemplating the great opera houses of the world, one does not necessarily spend much time or consideration on The Byre Theatre. But, last night, for two and a bit hours, it was reimagined (in its own quirky way) to be like a Covent Garden or La Scala for Georg Frideric Handel’s Semele (1744), the debut performance of the University of St Andrews Opera Society.
Having an orchestra on stage is hardly the most conventional feature of a staged version, but what a move it was! Despite this exposure, Handel sage Sean Heath (conductor) and company stridently entered the overture with its striking chords and held attention throughout, and at no point did they inundate the vocalists, a prospect of which such proximity might have run the risk. One of the collective triumphs for the soloists was the recognition that The Byre, as a space, is rather snug and personal and therefore there is no need whatsoever for ear-pummelling.
In the world of mankind, Oliver Linehan, Meg Inglis and Lauren Macleod together, playing Cadmus, Ino and Athamas respectively, brought to the first act an intimate and poignant rendering of the Theban royal family and the love triangle that tears it apart. On Olympus, a sensitive Jove, a servile Iris and a slumberous Somnus were each adeptly enacted by Andrew Mundy (whose performance in Rent last term was highly regarded), Imogen Welch and Teddy Day. The chorus too must be applauded for navigating one of the knottier parts in Handel, more polyphonic than is customary, as well as for their combining of roles as backroom staff. But the most prominent performances were the two female characters, vying for Jove’s cares- Semele herself and Juno.
Soprano Christina Bell, as the titular character, sang superbly, hubristically smug in her Arcadian love-nest, dressed only in a bed sheet in “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love” among other tricky arias; utterly despondent in her dying moment “Ah Me! Too Late I Repent”. The part of Juno was as impressive, played by Alice Gold, whose domineering and facetiousness brought much humour to the final act. Her acting was matched by her singing, particularly in her duet with Somnus, “Obey my will”, as she taught the nymph Pasithea to charm the god with her physical attributes.
The 1920s and 1930s New York setting conceived by Joseph Houghton, the director who must be congratulated for his efforts, and his team turned out well, from park-benches to chaises-lounges, bowties to waistcoats. Given budgets and resources, this was never feasibly going to be an ornate ekphrasis of classical idyll, and the frugality of the smoggier gangster concept made for a less frenetic spectacle, considering the orchestra’s close presence.
One slight pity, understandable though it was for duration’s sake, was the apparent lack of conclusion, with regards to the relationship between lovesick Ino and jilted Athamas, who, having opened the opera’s story so movingly together, in a less cut version would marry after the death of Semele and the birth of Bacchus.
However, though a Baroque opera may be slightly more docile and adaptable logistically than those of the Romantic, musically this was a tough and gruelling gig to pull off with its precarious recitatives and intricate da capo arias, and so all the performers and production team and also Meg Inglis and the Opera Society need to be mightily pleased with themselves. Though, so we hear, the hard work is by no means finished- we look forward to the walkthrough of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with bated breath!