For the second time this year, Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of Collegium 1704, has taken up the leadership of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London’s period instrument orchestra, as part of his residency at Glyndebourne. A new stage performance of George Frederick Handel’s Semele was given its festival premiere on 23 July. The festival organizers have scheduled a total of 11 reprises, running until the end of August.

“The Glyndebourne Festival is a grand and prestigious event, the biggest opera festival in England and one of the most important festivals in Europe. It features almost exclusively artists from the British Isles, and Handel traditionally occupies a very important place in its programme. I deeply appreciate the invitation to conduct one of Handel’s operas in England, which I received from the festival organisers some four or five years ago, especially as I am one of the few guest artists here. I am very much looking forward to the typically British atmosphere in general. So far, I’ve only been able to observe it keenly from afar. Apart from the opera house in Glyndebourne, it is also created by the very sophisticated, educated, and demanding British audiences, who, of course, also know how to savour life and enjoy not only quality music, but also, for example, a picnic at this popular English pleasure trip spot. Glyndebourne is inseparable from this summer holiday spirit,” explained prior to his departure to England Václav Luks.

Luks has been working on the new staging in London since the beginning of June, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London’s period instrument orchestra, Welsh director Adele Thomas, the performer of the title role, American soprano Joélle Harvey, British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston (Juno), British tenor Stuart Jackson (Jupiter), and other soloists.

Soprano Joélle Harvey as Semele (right).

The original audiences of Handel’s opera Semele, a story full of desire and sensuality set to equally passionate music, were in for a shock. Instead of a traditional Handelian biblical drama, they were confronted with a host of lascivious Roman gods and their deadly plots. Far from being a spiritual drama, Semele is a provocatively secular tale of seduction, adultery, and revenge. “Combining the sexual intrigue of classical myth with the solo virtuosity of Italian opera and the choral splendour of oratorio, Semele is the best of all worlds, a piece that rewrites the theatrical rules,” according to festival organisers.

Soprano Joélle Harvey as Semele.

Glyndebourne is located on the edge of the South Downs National Park in East Sussex. Landowner and producer John Christie and his wife, opera singer Audrey Mildmay, co-founded the festival there in 1934. It is currently held from May to August, offering a programme of six operas in the opera house which holds an audience of 1,200. Glyndebourne also hosts open days for families, exhibitions of artworks and archival materials, and an autumn season of opera performances and concerts that puts rising stars in the spotlight. In addition, there are educational and outreach programmes all year round.

Apart from Handel’s Semele, this year’s festival will offer the Glyndebourne premiere performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and, for the first time in more than a decade, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The other three productions this year are Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Donizetti’s great romantic comedy The Elixir of Love.

photographs: Petra Hajská, Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions