Mar 2nd 2015

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

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, 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.

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).

(The review continues after each video)

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.




To follow what's new on Facts & Arts, please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: Denis Pascal, founder of the French Trio Pascal: ".....recording studios began working again. We recorded our Schubert trios at the end of September. And musicians everywhere are finding that the crisis allows time for a certain introspection and questioning into the way music is performed. Music will play a much more important role after the crisis."
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACTS: "She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8." ..... "I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”."
Jan 31st 2021
EXTRACTS: "A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet .... Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.” "
Jan 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "Jack Kohl is an American pianist and writer with three novels and two essay collections to his credit. His new collection, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist, has drawn critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. In these reflections, he examines the power of ‘hack pianism’, the metaphor of running vs. the piano, and the ‘hidden gift’ of the Covid virus pandemic on solitary practicing. Robert Beattie spoke to Kohl about his music training and how he made the transition from pianist to author. (This edited interview was first published on www.Seenandheard-international.com and is reproduced with permission.)"
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Freedom in Beethoven’s music takes many, frequently overlapping forms. There is heroic freedom in the Eroica (1803), freedom from political oppression in the Egmont Overture (1810), artistic freedom and innovation in the Ninth Symphony (1824). Today, Beethoven’s music remains deeply connected with a true humanism, which has the principles of freedom and self-determination at its heart. The composer’s music grew out of the age of European Enlightenment, which located human reason and the self at the centre of knowledge......"
Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."