Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Semele

Jane Archibald (photo credit: Michael Cooper)

A Jolly Good Time...
...and utterly ridiculous and bombastic
by Axel Van Chee

“No, no I’ll take no less” sings Semele to Jove with grim determination in Act 3 of Handel’s oratorio/opera Semele, and the director Zhang Huan takes her complaint seriously, answering her pleas with a more-is-more, part documentary, part HBO, part National Geographic production. Playing at the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, the Canadian Opera Company rolls out - hands down - its most spectacular creation of the 2011-2012 season, ending it with a bang. In fact, I have not heard this much discussion in the foyer post show in a very long time. This Semele is at once gorgeous, perplexing, humourous, and at times angst inducing, and whether one agrees with the Director or not, it is certainly entertaining with a capital E. You should check it out and judge it for yourself, I mean, seriously.

...a donkey making love to the temple with a raging hard-on is funny once, doing it throughout the entire chorus number is decidedly witless...

Zhang Huan, a contemporary artist himself, sets the story in a real 450-year old Chinese temple, magnificently rebuilt and lit on the Four Seasons stage. It is interesting to me that the transfer of space and time from Greco-Rome to pseudo-ancient China does not seem awkward. Also being a contemporary artist, Zhang employs all the tricks he can muster on an operatic theatre: when they work, they are mind-bogglingly stunning - Act 3’s Somnus scene and Semele’s mirror aria being two samples of great theatrics; and when they don’t, they betray Zhang’s complete discomfort and struggle at understanding and directing an opera. Sticking to his mantra “more is more”, Zhang tries his best at filling in with fussy, busy actions, all the time. Starting out as hilarity, it soon reads tediously tiresome. For example: a donkey making love to the temple with a raging hard-on is funny once, doing it throughout the entire chorus number is decidedly witless. And there are numerous incidents like these. Frequently, I can imagine him standing there with the score in his hand, scratching his head, wondering what to do next.

Her second Act aria “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me” is nothing short of sublime.

In the main roles, Jane Archibald is a sensational Semele, delivering an electrifying performance. Not only does she cut a statuesque figure on stage with fine acting, her singing is nuanced, and she paints the many emotions of Semele with beautiful tonal shades. Her second Act aria “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me” is nothing short of sublime. Tenor William Burden sings the role of Jove with plenty of ardour and sound, but one suspects Baroque music is not his forté. His constant swooping, and vowel swapping during the runs are at odds with the rest of the cast. In the dual role of Ino/Juno, Allyson McHardy sings with conviction with creamy low notes and plenty of vigour.

McHardy and Whyte (photo: Michael Cooper)
In minor roles, Bass Steven Humes is a clarion and dignify Cadmus/Somnus, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings with agility and flourish as Athamas, and Katherine Whyte is an absolutely delightful Iris. This Semele also features an additional singer not in the Handel score: Tibetan singer Amchok Gompo Dhondup who delivers a splendid, transporting ditty. And here, is also where I think Zhang killed Handel.

To clarify, I actually thought that it is quite interesting how much the Tibetan folk singing (I am not sure if that is truly what it is since it is not in the program notes, but I’ll call it that) is similar to Baroque music: its direction of musical lines, its spinning phrasing, its twirls and thrills. But to put it AFTER the final chorus in Act 1? Really? That is like serving a meat pie at a vegetarian only dinner. In general I do not mind “director’s choice”, but to tinker with the music to this level completely undermines the rest of the opera, especially a Baroque work where there are certain musical rules that must be followed. And this happened again at the end of Act 3, with the humming of the Communist Internationale hymn rather than the actual Handel ending to the opera. There is a brief little blurb about Zhang’s rationale in this revised ending in relation to Buddhism, but it is still no less puzzling. A recording of the actual ending is pumped in the hallways and the foyer as the audience leaves the theatre, but it comes across more like an apology rather than a triumphant send off. On stage, the opera ends with the empty temple with an extra sweeping the ashes, making me wonder what story is he really trying to tell? Whatever it is, it is muffled in symbolism.

But ultimately, I did have a jolly good time. A grand time actually. This Semele is a feast for the eyes and ears, it is gloriously decadent, sensual, and utterly ridiculous and bombastic. And that is all I could wish for from an exciting night at an opera. Sometimes sacrileges are delicious and I cannot wait to see what happens in the next season. 

Semele continues to May 26

1 comment:

  1. The opera is really strange. Handel was killed completely.


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