But it's not such a good idea to hang out with a god, particularly not Jupiter, if you are a mere mortal who will be, in effect, dazzled to death in his undisguised presence. That is the fate that befalls ambitious, headstrong Semele in Handel's opera of the same name.
We start, in the present day, at the church where Semele's wedding with fellow mortal Athamus is about to take place. Excited guests in toning greys fill the seats, and father-of-the-bride Cadmus walks Semele to the altar, whereupon she espies sexy, persuasive Jupiter, and bolts.
Semele (Francesca Chiejina) bolts at the altar. Photos: Lidia Crisafulli
Cue the colourful, mountain-top palace where the lovers cavort in exotic surroundings. But there's one snag, in the form of Jupiter's watchful, vengeful wife, Juno. This can't end well... But my goodness, we shall have some fun on the way!
Blackheath Halls Opera has a special gift for bringing together top-flight professionals – bass Matthew Rose and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, for instance, are regulars on the international circuit – with south London newcomers to opera and music enthusiasts. The result is productions that are polished but also vigorous and more diverse than any fully professional company can hope to be. Who cannot be moved by this company's endeavour and delighted by its amazing results?
Rehearsals for the pro-am orchestra start in July, for the chorus and actors in August and hey presto, here is the whole of Semele, performed with zest and wit. Director Harry Fehr and the company enjoy to the full 21st-century props, neatly woven into the plot, that would have baffled composer Handel, living up west in Georgian London. Put it this way, who can function without a mobile phone these days?
Mortal Semele (Francesca Chiejina, in green) settles into the gods' paradise. Photo: Lidia Crisfulli
Francesca Chiejina is vivacious as spirited Semele, making a big mistake dumping an Athamus who is beautifully sung by counter-tenor Owen Willetts. Katie Bray discovers a whole new acid as Juno, singing with goddess-like perfection, seemingly limitless in her range and colour. Bass Matthew Rose as both Cadmus and sleepy Somnus anchors the show, and tenor Thando Mjandana is very entertaining as Jupiter.
Christopher Stark conducts from the side of the lower of two stages – up for heaven, down for earth – and the Blackheath Halls Orchestra has a gift from the gods in harpsichordist Satoshi Kubo, theorbo player Jens Franke and continuo cellist Marco Russo. A little thin up top, the orchestra could do with some more violinists. I bet some Culture Whisper readers could step forward...
Three cheers and several more for the youngsters who make up the Jupiter and Zeus companies, alternating performances, and for remarkable young people from two special schools. They animate every scene. There is stirring chorus work, sung with gusto, accuracy and character,
Last year, Leonard Bernstein's Candide was performed with skill, wit and invention by Blackheath Halls Opera. Culture Whisper had no hesitation in naming it that year's greatest musical surprise. It's no longer a surprise that this company produces outstanding work. Making the impossible possible is now its stock in trade. Watch out, gods: you've got serious competition.
Semele is sung in English with surtitles in English. Further performances are on 28 30 Sept; 1 Oct. Click here to book
|What||Semele, Blackheath Halls Opera review|
|Where||Blackheath Halls, Blackheath, 23 Lee Road, Blackheath, London, SE3 9RQ | MAP|
26 Sep 23 – 01 Oct 23, 7PM 26 & 28 Sept; 2:30PM 30 Sept & 1 Oct
|Website||Click here for details and booking|