Emma Pearson, Amitai Pati, Sarah Castle, Paul Whelan, Stephen Diaz, Chelsea Dolman, Sashe Angelovski; New Zealand Opera Chorus; Holy Trinity Cathedral Choir; New Zealand Opera Baroque Orchestra/Peter Walls; dir. Thomas de Mallet Burgess, Jacqueline Coats (Auckland, 2022)
Opus Arte DVD: OA1362D; Blu-ray: OABD7309D 146 mins
Semele has a curious history. Handel may have performed it ‘after the manner of an oratorio’, and even today there are critics who like to describe it as a ‘near-opera’. Its Covent Garden reception in 1744 was so lukewarm that Handel gave up promoting it, and until 1959 British performances were restricted to amateurs. Yet it’s now agreed to be one of the finest works of Handel’s maturity, combining the dramatic strengths of opera seria with the oratorio device whereby the chorus comments on the action.
Filmed three years ago in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland, New Zealand, this production was rapturously hailed on its release, despite the fact that the building has a poor acoustic: a measure, perhaps, of the desperation people felt at a time when lockdowns had temporarily killed concert life. The staging really is a one-off, with the action set entirely in a church, and presented as a wedding book-ended by champagnes all round; the congregation are simply the assembled guests.
Within its self-imposed limitations, the production directed by Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Jacqueline Coats necessarily relies heavily on lighting and camera work, and it has to be said that the latter sometimes perversely fails to honour the beauty of the music, being itchy with jump-cuts even in the middle of great arias like ‘Endless pleasure’ and ‘Where’er you walk’. But led by Emma Pearson’s moody Semele and Amitai Pati’s burly Jupiter (doubling as Apollo), with fine support from countertenor Stephen Diaz as Athamas and Sarah Castle’s fire-cracker Juno (doubling as schoolma’am Ino), the young cast perform heroically, while Peter Walls extracts lovely sounds from the New Zealand Opera Baroque Orchestra.