CHRISTOPHER GRAY on Garsington’s fabulous production of Semele

She’s so vain - she probably thinks this opera’s about her. And it is. Handel’s Semele, beginning with her marriage (aborted) and concluding with her funeral (sadly not), is a gloriously tuneful work supplying a sensational start to Garsington Opera’s seventh season at super-lush Wormsley.

The first-night audience, buoyed by the brilliant sunshine bathing Mark Getty’s Chiltern domain, gave an ecstatic welcome to the company’s first ‘go’ at the work of the Messiah-man, superbly conducted by Jonathan Cohen.

This 1743 opera was hot stuff in its day, telling the story of a woman, beloved of Jupiter in human form, but destined to perish from his thunderbolts when she insists he appear in his true guise.

Sultry Semele, stunningly portrayed by soprano Heidi Stober, falters at the altar, to the dismay of bridegroom Athamas (counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie), the fury of her father Cadmus (bass David Soar) and cautious optimism of her sister Ino (mezzo Jurgita Adamonyte), who fancies Athamas herself.

During delicious music, finely tuned to character, we learn of the heroine’s hanky-panky with Jove (tenor Robert Murray). Matters are settled when she is wafted skyward to join him, leaving a bolt-blasted temple in which dumped Athamas is felled by a falling chandelier.

Such comic touches abound in director Annilese Miskimmon’s larky take on the piece, which possesses a rich seam of levity, not least in the pouty posturings of self-loving Semele in her rock-star assortment of glittering outfits.

Her Act III air, ‘Myself I Shall Adore’ is a paean of praise to herself that seems as it it’s never going to end (we rather wish that it didn’t), sung to a mirror with the encouragement of Jove’s wife Juno (mezzo Christine Rice).

This painfully pregnant goddess of childbirth, beset by a winsome team of pink-clad offspring, is furious about hubby’s affair, and knows the weakness of Semele that will bring her revenge.

Famous for the lovely ‘Where’er you walk’, perfectly performed here by Mr Murray, the opera has much else to offer musically, especially from the chorus. That it looks wonderful, too, is all thanks to designer Nicky Shaw.

For tickets and live screening details go to 5/5