interview of the month
December 2019

»Semele« – Interview with director Barrie Kosky and conductor Konrad Junghänel

Back on the programme from 4th December! »Semele« is among the most loved of Handel’s works. The music provides the packaging for one of the most riveting family dramas of antiquity, a story centring on the royal house of Thebes. Semele is in love with Jupiter, king of the gods, who loves her equally. Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, plots the undoing of her rival and is ultimately successful: Semele is consumed in flames.

You took over the director’s role at one day’s notice. How did that come about?

Barrie Kosky Laura Scozzi, the director, was ill and was forced to throw in the towel after a week. At times like that an artistic director has to act quickly. Do you go after someone who’s done the piece before, do you give the gig to a young up-and-coming director, or are you better off going with a director with a track record? Whoever you get in from outside; it’s going to cost you at least a week of rehearsal time. So Kosky the Artistic Director said »We’ve got 24 hours to find someone.« And Kosky the Director-in-Chief said »I can do it!« It goes with the territory.

What gave you the confidence that you could pull off an escapade like that?

Barrie Kosky First up, it’s a terrific piece. I’d say it’s in Handel’s Top 10. In my mind the Semele myth and her role as the mother of Dionysus is one of the most compelling tales in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Second, there’s the amazing cast! Thirdly, »Semele« is my third Handel oratorio after »Saul«, which I staged at Glyndebourne in 2015, and »Belshazzar«, which I directed in Australia as a student. So I’m familiar with the structure and form, the issues you have to address and the kind of solutions you can come up with. Actually, if I’m honest, I prefer onstage oratorios to opera. The characters are rounded and memorable, much less hackneyed.

Still, »Semele« doesn’t come close to matching the popularity of, say, Handel’s »Messiah«. Why is that?

Konrad Junghänel Whereas there’s been a sustained resurgence of interest in Handel’s operas, people have been shy of touching the oratorios. They haven’t really been on the radar. We can guess at the reasons: in Germany the runaway king of oratorios is Johann Sebastian Bach. »Messiah« is the only oratorio by Handel to have really caught on here, doubtless due to the Hallelujah chorus more than anything else. It’s something that we see a lot of in opera: a single aria can lodge the work in the collective awareness. It’s lovely to see the way things are changing dramatically in that respect. I spent over twenty years fighting for the backing to get »Jephtha« up onstage as an acted-out work and I’ve now staged it not once but twice! I’m thrilled that we’re now doing »Semele«. This, too, is the second time for me. When I think of all the stuff that’s now been given the full stage treatment, I see it as a new development – and it’s beautiful, because »Semele«, »Jephtha« and »Saul« in no way have to tug their forelock to »Messiah«. I would even go so far as to say that these works actually have a lot more drama in them.

Semele, the mortal woman who is so distraught at not being in the same league as her beloved Jupiter… Isn’t that the epitome of human hubris? Might she not even deserve the fate she meets?

Barrie Kosky That’s a very Christian way of viewing this pre-Christian myth. Anyone who sees the work as just being about a pouting, coquettish bit of skirt who is unsure of her place should just listen to the music and re-read the Ovid original! Semele is totally not interested in banalities like diamonds, Rolls Royces or getting the villa with the swimming pool. No. She and Jupiter are head over heels in a fully reciprocated love without blemish or parallel. In human form Jupiter discovers human feelings, bringing him perilously close to real mortals. It’s not about sex. Semele might even have a death wish, maybe as a way of fusing with her lover - as in »Tristan and Isolde«, where we have the fusing of two bodies and souls. Or maybe she’s naive and thinks she has to know absolutely everything about Jupiter. We’re dealing here with a god who has become human and a mortal woman who asks the forbidden question and wants him to reveal himself and his inner nature to her, while being fully aware of the implications for her. And so it is that she ends up as a pile of ashes. Not that Ovid’s story ends there…

Dionysus rises from Semele’s ashes…

Barrie Kosky Jupiter picks up their unborn son from her remains and sews him into his thigh! Dionysus, also known as the »twice born«, is the god of excess, wine, intoxication, deception – and theatre. This ending, this powerful continuation of the myth following the death of Semele, is not of course something that can ever be portrayed onstage. Ovid is a kind of encyclopaedia for untold painters, sculptors, writers and musicians. The key to understanding him is in the title of his anthology of myths: Metamorphoses. With Ovid physical transformation is usually triggered by love and is normally a painful process involving death or mutilation and transmutation into another body or object. It’s something that Ovid has in common with theatre, where we also witness physical transformation.

In your English homeland »Semele« is often staged as a comedy. And if you consider Somnus, the drowsy god of sleep, that’s definitely one way of playing it, no?

Barrie Kosky The work does contain comic elements, yes, but people’s view of it as an amusing piece is more down to the fact that William Congreve was known for his witty restoration comedies. In England when you hear the word »Congreve«, you immediately think »comedy«. But the work starts off in C minor. Now, you never have a comedy starting in a minor key, so Handel is doing something else here. All his main characters display an obsessiveness in matters of love. In the arias, for instance, we see it in the love expressed by Ino for Athamas and in Athamas’s love for Semele. All the numbers are utterly compelling – which is anything but funny and definitely the opposite of risible.

We are given an intense family drama shot through with elements of myth and mythology. The two scenes showing the love between Semele and Jupiter form the cornerstones of the entire work. Jupiter’s beautiful elegy describing what he’s done and Semele’s final aria detailing what she has done are two of the loveliest moments in Handel’s entire oeuvre. But the relationship between Juno and Jupiter is fascinating too – Juno, the loving wife, who has to live with his unfaithfulness day in, day out, year in, year out, and even goes some way towards forgiving him. Although she has vengeance fantasies, they are motivated by love. Hers is not a proprietary love but rather a yearning for a love that is repeatedly denied her. Handel was a master when it came to using music to portray obsessive love in its multiple facets. And the way in which he goes about doing that, especially in the oratorios, clamours to be presented onstage.