Opera review: Masterson in fine voice for Handel’s Semele at Kilkenny Arts Festival

William Congreve, who wrote the libretto for Semele, studied in Kilkenny College
Opera review: Masterson in fine voice for Handel’s Semele at Kilkenny Arts Festival

Kelli Ann Masterson  and  Andrew Gavin (Jupiter_Apollo) in Handel's Semele, presented by Opera Collective Ireland as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. Picture: Frances Marshall 

Watergate Theatre, ★★★★☆

Handel’s Semele is a cautionary tale about the fate of mere mortals who don’t stay in their lane. In Greek mythology no good ever comes of celestial and human dalliances. Semele of the title is a glamourous gal who catches the eye of the god, Jove to the displeasure of his jealous wife Juno who schemes to reduce her mortal rival to ashes.

It is unusual among Handel’s operas in that it is in English, not Italian and the chorus is a more significant part of the work as it is in his oratorios. William Congreve who wrote the libretto has a local connection. The writer studied in Kilkenny College, a stone’s throw from the theatre. Handel wrote Semele during a Lenten period when opera was prohibited in an attempt to pass it off as a secular oratorio.

In this production from Opera Collective Ireland, director Patrick Mason sets the story based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the glamourous Hollywood world of the 1960s. Semele evokes the spirit of a fun-loving Marilyn Munroe. Paul Keogan’s elegant art deco set is reinforced by Catherine Fay’s fabulous costumes, mostly monochrome, with the exception of a dazzling red frock. 

Kelli Ann Masterson and other members of the cast in Semele. Picture: Frances Marshall
Kelli Ann Masterson and other members of the cast in Semele. Picture: Frances Marshall

Kelli-Ann Masterson looks the part and sings the vocal gymnastics of title role with ease. Andrew Gavin acts and sings well as Jove. Among the other roles, bass, Edward Hawkins impressed in the roles of Cadmus and Somnus.

The Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin placed on stage behind the action play with verve and Andrew Griffiths at the harpsichord keeps everything moving along smoothly.

At just under three hours, this production of Semele is very entertaining; attractive to look at; there is terrific singing and an abundance of appealing arias and ensembles. The comic elements win out over tragic and there is a jolly ending with the birth of a baby - the god Bacchus.

After the rigours of an outdoor opera in inclement weather at last year’s festival, it is good to be back indoors in the comfortable interior of the Watergate Theatre. There are two more performances in Kilkenny and two dates in September in Dún Laoghaire. So ‘revel while you may in soft delights’ of this handsome production.

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