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17 December, 2002

Semele at Wynyard - Angel Place. Dec 2002

Handel's Semele in Sydney. Wed 4th December.

Dear Colleagues,

Handel's oratorio was presented here as a staged opera .. and it worked.  This was the inaugural production of the 'Pinchgut' Opera Company which proposes to perform one or two rare operas each year, the next being Purcell's Fairy Queen in 2003.  The Angel Place Recital Hall is like a charming, 'cut down' version of the NYC Avery Fisher Hall, balcony boxes, acoustic panels (which seem to work) and all. 

The complex Semele story involves some characters from Greek mythology.  There are numerous cataclysms including an apparent eclipse, public outcries, intemperance, an aborted marriage, flirting, copious furtive romance and numerous hilarious sex scenes on stage (consequent progeny and hangovers are not in evidence).  The same afternoon, southern Australia had experienced both a solar eclipse and bush fire havoc, temperatures rising to over 30 degrees.  Sydney underground trains were almost paralysed after a signal failure, the nearby Sydney Opera House cancelled all performances (including a very successful Swan Lake by Graham Murphy) due to power surges ... and a huge pop concert at the Entertainment Centre in Chinatown was also put off.  So we were lucky to be seeing anything!

This Semele was set around 1960 with many on-stage trappings reminding the older half of the audience of their youth and the younger ones of old photographs and home movies from a previous carefree generation untroubled by war, pestilence or terrorism.  The lighting by Bernie Tan was original and sympathetic on a curtainless stage with simple decorative back drop and cleverly recessed 'horizon' design above.  It was made to look like many different sets in one by use of colours, contrasts and gloom. 

Like the rest, the opera's three 'party' pieces were all well sung.  "Where'er you walk" was given elegantly by Angus Wood as Jupiter.  A former baritone (including a Luhrmann Boheme), he has recently moved up to tenor range.  He thus sings with a rich low yet shows no signs of effort on the higher passages. 

"Iris Hence Away" was sung creditably by Sally-Anne Russell as Semele's sister, Ino (and Juno).  More than once she almost became the evening's star. 

But the title role has her own "Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?" and Anna Ryberg did it and the rest great justice.  We heard her sing the long arie 'Myself I shall adore' and 'No I'll take no less than all in full excess' in the third act, proving an exemplary success both dramatically and vocally.   

Cupid was sung by Shelli Gilhome who had a fine, pure voice with the slightest tremolo.  She acted as unseen miming muse in Act one, being the alter ego for Ino. 

Stephen Bennett as the father and Somnus sang with his usual calm distinction.  I am told that Handel can be even more difficult and exacting to sing than Mozart.  And Mr Bennett has sung both Leporello and the Don .. neither badly. 

Tobias Cole as groom Athamus had an unusual high tenor/alto voice, pleasing and manly if not always seamless. 

The priest was played by warm, rich basso Craig Everingham who had the best diction of the evening.  Justin Way deserves a major accolade for a brilliant conception and numerous highlight pieces of staging including a 'limp fall' by the entire chorus at one point.  Whenever I see someone nodding off in a theatre nowadays I cannot help thinking 'are we being gassed?'  How the world has changed! 

The 'Sirius Ensemble', conducted by Anthony Walker deserves special mention as they played the most difficult music with careful attention to detail.  There were about 15 strings including a 'cellist who played much of the sensitive recit work, some with the harpsichord.  They were supplemented by two baroque horns for the finale of act one while some fixed trombone-like brass were added in act three.  There was an organ and some older variety woodwind resembling large recorders. 

We are fortunate to be able to hear such talented artists in this delightful venue in the heart of Sydney's business district.  The next week will see three more performances, one of which will be broadcast.  It is a disgrace to the national opera company that there have been few if any broadcasts or telecasts in recent years.  Public funding should include a requirement for a permanent record of successful productions for those who cannot get to the big cities and for those who cannot afford the steep price of tickets (Pinchgut's top price is $90). 

comments by Andrew Byrne ..