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Jupiter and Juno are King and Queen of England here. I think the idea is not anything to do with England in any specific sense, but rather the evocation of a royal pair who have a great deal of money and power but who are also profoundly ordinary and often rather petty and limited at the same time. It’s a clever communication of that “human, flawed and often ridiculous, but with magic powers!” quality of the Greek and Roman gods.
Here is Juno (Birgit Remmert) and her harried secretary, Iris (Isabel Rey):
(I love the part at the end of “Iris, hence away” where amid the coloratura around “a speedy flight we’ll take” Juno fears she has lost something, digs into her handbag and emerges triumphantly brandishing her British Airways ticket.)
We get more of the same when Juno and Iris go to see Somnus, the god of sleep. (Juno’s plan is to cause Jupiter to fall asleep and dream of Semele, thus whetting his appetite for her and making him eager to please, while – meanwhile – Juno herself, disguised as Semele’s sister Ino, will flatter Semele into thinking she will be made immortal and persuade her to ask for a glimpse of Jupiter in his real form.) They come cautiously into his cave with flashlights, wearing wellington boots. There is a hitch, in that poor Iris has to impersonate some girl Somnus is hot for in order to convince him to give up his lead wand to Juno, but in the end Juno gets her way. I didn’t even know there was a sweet spot between “middle-aged executive secretary” and “suggestible pixie helper”, but I guess there must be, because Isabel Rey has found it, and it’s funny as hell.
In addition to this, Anton Scharinger’s performance of “Leave me, loathsome light” is really lovely. (He also sings the role of Cadmus).
The other thing that caught my attention about this clip was the introductory music. (This is the very beginning of Act III.) There is something sympathetic about it, somehow. The same is true of “leave me, loathsome light.” It evokes a sort of – gah, this sounds a bit stupid, but tender human sympathy. It suggested to me that while Semele is certainly about to get a punishment that she has earned by her own behavior, we as the audience completely understand why. The opera mocks her, but very gently. Her own very human follies are her downfall.
I had this thought, and then I thought – wait, that makes no sense. This section isn’t about Semele; it’s about Juno and Iris cornering the god of sleep. But it’s worth noting that there is a lot of sleeping in this opera. In the scene immediately after this, we encounter Semele distraught and unable to sleep. And earlier, soon after Semele has arrived in her new heavenly palace, we see her sleeping and she wakes up worried that Jupiter has abandoned her; he reassures her that he simply left her to rest because as a mortal, she requires it. Sleep is connected with being human, one of those things that we all share, and which renders us very similar to one another – note in the clip above how Juno and Irish have trouble locating Somnus amid all the other sleepers. And being human, in its most basic sense, is Semele’s flaw and what brings about her death.
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