Her taste for hoops, bustles and big hair is well known and she has designed for the opera before, but Vivienne Westwood has – surprisingly – never turned her hand to baroque music theatre. Until now.
With Semele Walk, Hannover’s youngest festival brings punk to Handel in the 320-year-old gallery of one of Europe’s finest palace gardens. Westwood has provided the costumes – a dizzying array of them, from slashed grunge to glittering rococo – and the inspiration for director Ludger Engels and dramaturge Andri Hardmeier’s gloriously bizarre take on Handel’s Semele.
A wild mortal prone to extravagance and hurtling towards a giant conflagration, Semele is, as Engels sees it, a proto-punk. “No, no, I’ll take no less/Than all in full excess!” she sings and, when the soprano begins to scream her text to the accompaniment of a distorted electric theorbo, it seems like a logical progression.
For Semele Walk, the Herrenhausen gallery, adorned with elaborate frescoes of the life of Aeneas intertwined with royal symbols from the House of Hanover, is turned into a giant catwalk. The audience members arrive in more than their usual finery. Seldom are such high heels, hairspray and jewellery to be seen at a Hanover opera premiere – and that’s just the men.
As eight pouting models flounce up and down the long catwalk, Semele begins to disintegrate. Engels and music director Olof Boman have come up with a radically pared-down and reshuffled arrangement. Semele begins the opera contemplating her demise, and staggers her way through the ensuing 70 minutes with a counter-tenor offsider in alternating moods of rage and despair.
Hers is a surreal and immoderate descent into madness, where the musicians of the Kaleidoskop ensemble frequently add pickups to their instruments and slip into wild punk extemporisations. Members of the North German Figuralchor have been infiltrated into the audience, and add their voices from amid the anonymous public.
In the title role, Aleksandra Zamojska gives her all, to the audible detriment of her vocal health – all that screaming takes its toll on the finer aspects of lyricism but you have to admire the take-no-prisoners approach. Armin Gramer, who cuts a fine figure in sequinned kilt and diamond-studded socks, also gives a high-risk performance.
Herrenhausen is rebuilding its once-destroyed palace as a centre for scientific research. With its festival, it aims to blend innovation and tradition in a way that captures the public imagination. Semele Walk, decorative, hallucinogenic and bold, does exactly that.