Review of Seattle Opera’s production of Handel’s “Semele”

by James Bash James Bash writes articles for a variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, Open Spaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy. 02.03.2015

You might think that watching a Baroque opera with its endless da capo arias would be akin to watching paint dry, but Seattle Opera’s all-new production of Handel’s “Semele” tosses that notion out the window. This “Semele” has everything going for it: terrific singers anchored by the Stephanie Blythe, spirited conducting by Gary Thor Wedow, spot-on directions by Tomer Zvulun, evocative costumes by Vita Tzykun, inventive sets by Erhard Rom, and wizardly lighting by Robert Wierzel. It all caused the audience to go bananas when the curtain came down on the final scene at McCaw Hall on opening night (February 21).

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Right from start during the overture, this production grabbed the audience’s attention by introducing the main characters as if they were in a movie or TV show. If the singer had a role as a god or goddess, then an image of that character was projected upon the scrim across the front of the stage. If the singer had the role of a mortal, then a spotlight shone on him or her from behind the scrim. For those singers who did two roles (for example, Blythe as Juno and as Ion), the deity was shown first.

Handel’s libretto was adapted from an earlier version by the great Restoration writer William Congreve. The story takes place in ancient times. Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes, has been promised in marriage to Athamas, but Jupiter has been smitten with Semele’s beauty and she longs for him. After Jupiter carries Semele away to a pleasure-palace, Jupiter’s wife, Juno, becomes incensed, and takes revenge. With the help of Somnus, the god of sleep, Juno immobilizes Semele’s sister Ino and then takes on Ino’s likeness. She then convinces Semele that she can become acquire immortality if Jupiter will reveal his divine form to her. Semele falls for Juno’s line of thinking, and it results in Semele’s death.

Brenda Rae created a radiant and comely Semele with superb singing that included at least two arias with stratospheric notes. After receiving a mirror and becoming totally infatuated with herself, Rae delivered a thrilling “Myself I shall adore,” which was one of the high points of the evening. Alek Shrader’s Jupiter displayed an equally compelling voice, commanding all of the florid lines with a natural and engaging tone that was smooth and golden at the top – even during his rage arias. Shrader’s sublime singing of “Where’er you walk” was another memorable moment, and he also wonderfully sang the role of Apollo.

Blythe switched seamlessly between the two characters. As Juno on her throne, she whiled away her time with bon bons until photographic proof of her philandering husband spurred to into action, The flinty wrath of her anger, which descended into the basement of Blythe’s range, torched the stage and caused an eruption of cheers from the audience. Later, as Ino, Blythe and Rae’s duet, “Prepare then, ye immortal choir,” ended so spectacularly that the audience responded with thunderous applause, which, in turn, drowned out the first few measures of the ensuing chorus.

Amanda Forsythe sparkled in the role of Iris, singing impeccably and with carefree abandon. She complimented it all with excellent comic timing, shoes that lit up, and gloves that threw beams of green laser light all over the place. John Del Carlo projected a depth charge of basso profundo that gave weight to the grief of Cadmus and to the drowsy Somnus.

Counter tenor Randall Scotting created an ardent Athamas, but his voice was overshadowed by Blythe’s when they sang together. The Seattle Opera Chorus was thoroughly prepared by John Keene. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow guided the 37-piece chamber orchestra with élan while playing a virginal (a Baroque keyboard instrument). Overall, the music-making was of the highest caliber.

Tomar Zvulun’s witty directions enhanced the production, and kept it from tipping over into the land of slapstick comedy, which would have trivialized the sensuous and poignant moments. The projections and sets, designed by Erhard Rom, had a modern flair yet evoked foreground of an ancient temple and lofty mountain heights. Humorous touches included huge selfies of Semele that adorned the pleasure-palace and Somnus draped over a sofa in the lair of his nightclub. Costume designer Vita Tzkun gave the gods and goddesses lavish outfits to match their outsized personalities, including an extended cape for Somnus, which gave him a Fafner-like presence. The flashiest garb was worn by Iris, whose gloves emitted laser lights and winged shoes lit up the floor. Imaginative lighting by Robert Wierzel put just the right glow on everything.

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