Shades of Love: Seattle Opera Presents Handel’s “Semele”

Posted on February 18, 2015, 8:23 am
5 mins


Lent begins today, and for the observance of this holy period, the composer George Handel was commissioned to write a Lenten oratorio in the first half of the 18th century. The composer instead wrote Semele. Winton Dean explains just what a leap this was when he says of Semele‘s creation: “Where they expected wholesome Lenten bread, they received a glittering stone dug from the ruins of Greek mythology.”

It’s an apt premier for the month of Valentine’s Day. It’s the first time Seattle Opera is staging this production and in their marketing they are playing up the raciness of the opera which, as it happens, is more timely than ever, following a certain pop culture phenomenon drawing audiences around the world.

Sentiments about Valentine’s Day are always mixed, but this year sees an added layer of complexity with the theatrical release of Fifty Shades of Grey, a wildly popular—and equally maligned—depiction of carnal obsession. Its artistic worth might be questionable, but the record-breaking sales at the box office leave no question as to its widespread appeal.

The film’s phenomenon has also spiced up the dialogue in a month usually reserved for sugar-sweet sentiments. The naive protagonist in Fifty Shades falls hopelessly in love with the ‘wrong’ kind of man, and the first installment of this franchise ends ambiguously regarding the choices she has made. The dynamics in the book have sparked countless editorials on submission and domination, sociopathy and codependency, the gulf between male and female fantasy, and more. In short, conversation this Valentine’s day was not so much about unalloyed romance, but the darker, often unexpressed aspects of a romantic bond. As Robert Browning states in A Death in the Desert (1864): “For life, with all it yields of joy and woe, and hope and fear (believe the aged friend), is just our chance o’ the prize of learning love, – how love might be, hath been indeed, and is.”

Star-crossed lovers and forbidden desire are eternal tropes in all forms of narrative, and opera may be the most extravagant when it comes to depicting romantic tragedy. Fifty Shades of Grey and Semele may be worlds apart in terms of artistry, but they are cut from a similar carnal cloth. Semele definitely falls for the wrong (but powerful) man, the god Jupiter, whom she chooses over her royal husband-to-be. In an ill-advised attempt to become immortal herself, she burns to a tinder and her ashes give rise to the god Bacchus, himself a symbol of divine delirium and wine—so even oenophiles can appreciate the opera for the spectacular birth of a patron deity.

Handel’s “glittering stone” is at once alluring and hypnotizing. Love in Seattle Opera’s Semele is presented in several shades: affection, adoration, sacrifice, jealousy and envy, fame and acceptance. While the music of this English-language opera is solidly set in 1743 and the plot in antiquity, every other aspect of this production is everything but, promising the company’s “most innovative new production yet.”

The creative team, including costume designer Vita Tzykun (who previously worked with Lady Gaga), set designer Erhard Rom, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel might well live up to this claim. The casting also promises further shine to the “glittering stone” of Semele with Seattle favorites such as mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Juno and Ino, a “…singing actress of such commanding power that she simply sweeps away all before her…”, and tenor Alek Shrader as Jupiter and soprano Brenda Rae as Semele, both known for their sensitive, lyrical technique appropriate for early music. John Del Carlo, another Seattle favorite, will be playing Cadmus and Somnus.

For an enticing taste of Seattle Opera’s “sensuous and sparkling” production of Semele, the promo video is included below.

Seattle Opera Presents Semele

When:  February 21, 2015 – March 7, 2015

Where:  McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.)

Tickets available through

Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.