Handel dons a mohawk: worlds collide in a high-fashion feast of Baroque-punk splendour.

The complaint constantly levelled at supermodels (think Naomi Campbell) is that they tend to be “divas” on and off the catwalk. Like opera, high fashion is a world of high stakes. And if you’ve seen the opulent costumes and headdresses in the film Farinelli, the biopic of the Italian Baroque’s great castrato divo of the same name, it’s not hard to understand why German director Ludger Engels chose to explore the links between the rarefied worlds of opera and fashion through the showy virtuosity and extreme drama of Handel. In Semele Walk he has slashed the hemline of the composer’s oratorio Semele to just 80 minutes of highlights, enrobed in the visual drama of bold designs by Britain’s reigning queen of fashion, Vivienne Westwood. 

In the rococo interior of the Sydney Town Hall, the immense pipe organ loomed over a sleek, 30-metre runway. Young string players of Berlin’s Kaleidoskop ensemble were the first to ascend it, wildly coiffed and styled like rock stars. (How will they ever resign themselves to concert blacks again?) Handel’s stately overture was punctuated by the clumping of platform heels the size of ponies as towering, teetering models strutted up and down the catwalk. One munched suggestively on a green apple as she sashayed along – probably the only thing she’d eaten all day. 

I found it hard to focus on the musicians as Vivienne Westwood’s decadent baroque crinolines and gowns were paraded before me (all bearing her signature punk and psychedelic twists ­– artfully torn here, riotous bursts of colour there). Every swish, flounce and rustle of fabric drew the eye to some new elaborate detail wrought in tulle or ostrich feathers. Sensation overload? Absolutely. But the sense of pomp and occasion fit the music like, well, those gold sequined gloves I was coveting earlier.   

Polish soprano Aleksandra Zamojska emerges from the procession, her sweet, supple tone well suited to both the lyricism and the coloratura pyrotechnics of the title role. A lover on the edge of despair, Semele first breaks rank, then breaks down under the harsh glares of spotlights and spectators… But the show must go. The glamazons ignore the tormented woman reaching out to them, expressionless and uncaring under layers of ghostly-pale kabuki makeup. Perhaps this is Engels’ bleak view of the cut-throat world of fashion; Semele laments in song, “Too late I now repent my pride and impious vanity.” 

In vocal tone and agility, Zamojska is well matched with Austrian countertenor Armin Gramer in the role of Semele’s immortal lover Jupiter ­– the most touching moment of the show was their tender duet. He has all the required swagger of a philandering deity as his eyes wander over the “merchandise” on stage; with his bejewelled kilt and curled locks, it was as if Bon Scott had been given a makeover by Queer Eye. Sadly, the soupy acoustic of the Town Hall made it impossible to understand their accented diction, and Gramer’s spoken outbursts imploring the audience to “trash” and “beat” him had little impact. 

Despite the lack of vocal clarity, the amplified Keleidoskop ensemble and conductor Olof Boman maintained a crisp, nuanced sound throughout. They mastered the sudden shifts from Baroque harmonies to the eerie, dissonant interludes in which Semele’s psychological world comes undone at the seams. The instrumentalists in punk garb must have relished the chance to climb onto the gleaming white runway and let loose: when was the last time you saw a theorbo player channel Hendrix?

Another welcome shock was the Sydney Philharmonia chorus members bursting into song from their incognito places scattered among the audience, singing antiphonally across to each other over the catwalk (a treat for those seated next to them). Far from being a Vivienne Westwood vanity project, Semele Walk is a layered, wacky production that successfully marries and then deconstructs two forms of lavish spectacle. Now, how about lending me one of those gowns for mardi gras?

Semele Walk is at Sydney Town Hall until January 15. View event details here.