The story of Semele as it was adapted by George Handel is a familiar one: A restless citizen, bored of a monotonous, mundane, regimented life decides to aim her sights higher and reach for stardom, adoration and a more satisfying existence. In the case of Semele, the eponymous Theban princess is especially wary of an impending marriage to a man who embodies the mundane world, as she desires the most sublime and kingly figure, Jove. Things go well for her at first, but overreaching and pride inevitably lead to destruction. (It is a Greco-Roman myth, after all.)
Seattle Opera’s production of Handel’s Semele takes this ancient but perennial content and puts it in the context of contemporary fame culture. The opera as a whole was a marvel to behold, with breathtaking stage design by Seattle-based Erhard Rom, rendered in minimalist white and grey. The first act, set on earth at the eve of Semele’s wedding to a prince, was less than satisfactory. Director Tomer Zvulun thankfully cut a large portion of it, but the singing and balance of it were rife with problems. Bass-baritone John Del Carlo, usually a firm Seattle favorite, was unimpressive as Cadmus, with his performance lacking the range, agility and variety required of the role. Luckily he played two roles in this production, the second being vastly more suited and with better results.
The other male lead in the first act, Semele’s husband-to-be, Athamas, played by countertenor Randall Scotting, had similar vocal production issues. Scotting has a beautiful, rich tone to his voice, and is a compelling actor, but the lack of forward projection made it difficult to hear his part at times, and caused an ineffective balance in duets and ensemble work with one of the starring divas of the night, Stephanie Blythe as Semele’s sister Ino. While Scotting’s voice could easily have impressed in a smaller venue, or in more intimate early music works, he was less-than-suited for this role.
Some staging decisions were more problematic. Semele’s seminal aria “Endless pleasure” sung at the back of the stage and hidden by a curtain was muffled and didn’t provide the kind of impact that audiences have come to expect. Some members of the chorus in block formation were over-singing during most of the first act, and the chorus in general only came to its full in a wider formation at the end of the first act. This formation was wisely repeated in the latter two acts. When one considers the problematic combination of these issues, it is hard to blame Semele for wanting to leave!
The two female leads were, however, exemplary. Soprano Brenda Rae as Semele had the audience eating of her hand with expert virtuosity and comedic timing. Rae’s singing can be soft, controlled, intimate (even at extremely high pitches), but she is also capable of astoundingly athletic feats, providing variety in Handel’s seeming endless line-up of da capo arias.
Wagnerian/early music double-threat Stephanie Blythe easily stole the show, playing Semele’s sister, Ino, and rival, the goddess Juno. It is astounding to think that Blythe, who has sung robust Wagnerian roles such as Fricka, could perform early music without missing a beat. Her strong projection, exceptional breath control and acute awareness of phrasing was a delight to behold. She is, put simply, the finest of the finest.
The difference between the first act and the latter two is as distinct as night and day, and one almost wishes the director could have cut the former entirely. The latter part of Semele is early opera at its best: impeccable, inspired singing and acting, stunning costumes and set design, and a forward momentum that leaves one breathless. Musically, these acts were a tour de force, with Amanda Forsythe (as the messenger, Iris) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter and Apollo) joining, and John Del Carlo returning in the more well-suited role of Somnus, the god of sleep. The sheer number of athletic vocal runs was staggering, and navigated successfully time after time by all. A particularly entertaining moment was the comedic interaction between Iris and Juno, as they poked fun at some of these runs and ornamented cadences, often causing side-splitting laughter from the audience. While Amanda Forsythe’s Iris is not a main character in the drama, her interaction with the other singers infused the night with humor and energy. Despite the stature and sheer talent of her co-stars, she was by no means overshadowed.
The more limited range required of the character of Somnus beautifully highlighted the rich, lyrical aspects of John Del Carlo’s voice, complemented by the opera orchestra’s impeccable playing, under the direction of conductor Gary Thor Wedow. Wedow draws beautiful entrances and poignant moments from the players, framed by well-timed silence. The continuo sections during recitatives were watertight, and intimate unison moments between the strings and Stephanie Blythe’s Juno, disguised as Semele’s sister, Ino (hey, it’s opera!), also bore witness to fine preparation and perceptiveness on the part of the orchestra.
Alex Shrader as Semele’s love interest, the god Jove, delivers the swagger one expects of male opera leads—especially when playing the king of the gods—and through inflections in tone and resonance, audiences get both the almighty deity and the hapless lover, desperate to give his beloved anything she desires.
With such a combination of talent on stage, the ensemble singing was perfectly blended, leading the audience on a soaring journey to the starry firmaments of delight sought by the opera’s characters. With the opera chorus positioned in a wider formation off-stage for the latter acts, the early issues of blend disappeared, and their functioning as a Greek chorus, commenting on the preceding events, was smooth, unobtrusive and highly musical.
Much has been made of the more innovative aspects of this production of Semele, particularly the combination of scene designer Erhard Rom, costume designer Vita Tzykun and lighting designer Robert Wierzel. The modernization of theme and all aspects of design could easily be distracting, but this was not the case. The set’s simplicity was its strength: a predominance of white color palettes; geometric neoclassical architectural features offset by soft accents, such as sheer curtains and linens; and visual feats where the temporal world was traded for endless expanses of sky. Some of the features bordered on being too literal (a visual of the earth superimposed in the background, for example), yet the overall effect was both compelling and convincing.
Vita Tzykun has, not incidentally, designed costumes for Lady Gaga, one of this week’s trending celebrities, and a performer whose on-stage persona is self-consciously rooted in the concept of fame culture. For Semele, Tzykun extended the virtues and vices of the characters visually in a beautifully conceived manner. The god of sleep, Somnus, is depicted as a “sleep junkie” in a long blue coat with sparkling constellations on it. Messenger Iris has flames on her sandals and light features on her back, helmet and fingertips. The regal Juno wore a campy gold-and-blue gown, and Semele’s cuckolded fiancé a school boy’s uniform.
Lighting director Robert Wierzel created several exceptional moments where the plot takes a dramatic turn. A personal favorite was the moment in which Jove sings “cool gales shall fan the glade” in the well-known aria “Wher’ever you walk” as the stage transitions from minimalist white to palpably cooler hues of icy-blue.
A final feature was the introduction of dancers—nymphs or minions—who follow the gods’ every step. With conceptual choreography by Donald Byrd, they become an extension and reflection of the general emotions, characteristics and anguish of Somnus and Jove, as well as a practical component of the opera, as pall-bearers, cloak handlers and even furniture for the opera’s characters.
Despite the frustration of the first act, the latter two acts make Semele well worth the wait. The musicality, acting choices and general ensemble on stage, supported by thoughtful, time-appropriate, baroque playing by the orchestra, beautiful set, costume and lighting design make for a singular experience. And the next opera to come this season shows a stroke of programming genius. Semele ends when the heroine burns to death in Jove’s glory and—off stage—the jovial god Bacchus is born from her ashes…just in time for Seattle Opera’s next feature Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Bacchus is a lead role. It would seem the gods are not done with Seattle just yet, as we continue to, in Handel’s words, “…take no less than all in full excess.”
Seattle Opera’s Semele plays at McCaw Hall through March 7.