SEMELE at Blackheath Halls
Blackheath Halls Opera seemed to have found the perfect combination of the heavenly, the human and the humorous in their triumphant 2022 production of Candide. I reckoned it was unsurpassable, a view reinforced when the organisers of this brilliant community project announced that this year they would be staging Handel’s tragic morality tale Semele.
How wrong I was. Semele, composed nearly 300 years ago, might have a heart of baroque darkness but in director Harry Fehr’s staging it also speaks – or rather sings – volumes about the shallowness and short-sightedness of our 21st century consumerist, celebrity-obsessed culture.
It’s full of great visual gags, which I’m not going to spoil. Suffice to say that it pulls off the trick of introducing smartphones, burger bars and emojis to the 18th century without ever feeling forced. Indeed, it’s magical – and very, very funny. The ticket price is worth it just for the way Bacchus subverts the grand finale.
None of this would work, however, without the performances of the singers and the orchestra. And in all cases they’re out of this world.
Tenor Thando Mjandana is magnificent as Jupiter, commanding the stage in a dazzling suit like some hiphop megastar. Soprano Francesca Chiejina as Semele never misses a beat as her shallow dream of Olympian immortality with her divine lover ends in a nightmare of disillusion and inevitable destruction.
Mezzo-soprano Katie Bray delightfully channels her inner Love Island contestant as Jupiter’s vengefully jealous wife Juno. And there are faultless turns by Trinity Laban singers Molly Joynson (Iris) and Hannah Leggatt-McPhee (Ino) as well as by countertenors Garreth Romain (a fabulously catty Cupid) and Owen Willetts (Athamus).
The front-line cast is completed by bass Matthew Rose in the dual role of Semele’s father and the god of sleep Somnus. What a voice!
Handel described the work as a musical drama and it’s as much oratorio as it is opera. Oratorios require a large chorus and the one provided here is magnificent – about 75 singers of all ages drawn from schools, local residents and BHO’s own youth company.
Equally fine is the 35-strong Blackheath Halls Orchestra under musical director Christopher Stark who capture the wit and wonder of Handel’s composition in all its glory.
I can’t sign off without praising Zahra Mansouri’s gorgeous costumes, Chuma Emembolu’s pulsating lighting design and Elliott Squire’s eye-popping set that cleverly makes the floor-level human world drab and on-stage Olympus a riot of saturated colour.
This is a production of the very highest order and it’s hard to imagine how BHO is going to top it next year. But I can’t wait to find out.