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One of the things I noticed about this opera was how much I liked the overture – there are these wonderful tight little figures in the violins that appear several times in the first section. And the overture was not the only point at which I found myself paying attention to the violins. They follow Semele (Cecilia Bartoli) around quite a bit. In Semele’s Act II aria “with fond desiring” the vocal line and the violin line are nearly the same. Even more fun still is “Myself I shall adore” from Act III. Disguised as Ino, Juno has given Semele an enchanted mirror in which Semele appears with the beauty of a goddess rather than a mortal woman.
Semele, naturally, is entranced with her reflection. And given that it’s an aria about a mirror, the violins and the vocal part are in dialogue with or reflecting one another – it’s really charming. Finally, not long after, when Jupiter tries to refuse Semele’s request to see him in his true form, Semele’s anger is introduced orchestrally in a similar way in the violin parts at the beginning of “No, no, I’ll take no less” and continues in these little agitated patterns throughout the aria.
To return to “myself I shall adore” again, Bartoli is utterly fantastic here. The singing is terrific, and the characterization is spot on. Semele is vain and self-absorbed but it’s more funny and sympathetic than off-putting. She gets us on her side, somehow.
Indeed this is probably the strength of the production as a whole. It tells a mythological story in a way that brings out the humanness of the characters and the music. My impression of Charles Workman’s Jupiter, for example (interested parties will be relieved to know that this time Workman has no renegade stage moustache to contend with) was of a very mortal sort of divinity who genuinely seems to care about Semele – up to a point. By the last scene, when Bacchus, in the form of champagne, is having his expected effect on the guests at Ino and Athamus’s wedding, Jupiter has found himself a new girl, and Juno is just rising to her feet in fury as the curtain goes down.