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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Opera Review: Wrestling with the Gods

The Canadian Opera Company presents Semele at BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Temple maiden: Semele (Jane Archibald) awaits her lover in the Handel opera.
Photo provided by Brooklyn Academy of Music © 2015 Canadian Opera Company.
The rich history of China is a recurring leitmotif in the 500-year history of the Western art form of opera. On Friday night, the Canadian Opera Company gave the second performance of its production of Handel's Semele, designed and directed by the Chinese auteur Zhang Huan. This production's arrival in New York is the cornerstone opera offering of BAM's spring season, and a chance for this city to hear this excellent Toronto-based company in a rare American visit.

Mr. Zhang mounts this mythological story within the confines of an ancient Ming Dynasty temple, giving new context to this story which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The production combines black-and-white film (accounting the history of the wooden temple set and its former occupants outside of Shanghai, mirrored curtains, Chinese songs (not written by Handel), a dancing donkey armed with a jutting pizzle, sumo wrestling, and even an enormous dancing paper dragon, the kind seen at celebrations of the Chinese New Year.

If all that seems a bit much, Mr. Zhang's efforts added some much-needed color (thanks to the gorgeous costumes by Han Feng) and action to this opera. Semele is a weird opera, an adaptation of an English libretto by the poet William Congreve. Here, Handel attempted to cross-breed opera with the oratorio, that genre of  concert work (usually on a Christian subject) that had proved wildly popular in Handel's London. Dramatically, it is a work of ritual and confrontation, spiced with sex and paganism--definite no-no's for Handel's audience.

Today's modern listener finds the tragic story of Semele easier to digest. Played here by Jane Archibald Semele is an ambitious girl consumed by her desire to mate with the thunder god Jupiter (Colin Ainsworth) Tricked by his jealous wife Juno (Hilary Summers) she demands that he appear in his godly form. When he does, she dies in a burst of fiery light. The work demands a tremendous amount of orchestral precision and great vocal dexterity, and the title role calls for the soprano to have an absolute command of coloratura in the upper reaches of the head voice.

Ms. Archibald was an affecting heroine, developing from girlhood to maturity thanks to her trysts with Jupiter on the road to her own untimely self-destruction. She navigated the low-lying slow arias with a probing and intelligent approach to the vocal line, aided by Christopher Moulds' precise and persistent conducting beat. In the third act, she tossed off her complicated and high-lying aria with more and more elaborate coloratura, racing Icarus-like into the upper reaches of her voice without worrying if her wings would melt.

With her high pile of hair and stiff corset, Ms Summers' portrayal of Juno seemed rooted in the tradition of cabaret. Her skills as a comic actress brought extra dimension to the role of the spurned spouse, even though her singing at times lacked thrust. Ms. Summers also doubled the part of Ino, Semele's sister, making the Act Three plot point where one is disguised as the other play very smoothly. Baritone Kyle Ketelsen was also memorable in a pair of roles: as Semele's father and as Somnus, the God of Sleep who napped wrapped in a giant quilt on top of the enormous temple set.

The dark-voiced tenor Colin Ainsworth made an ardent Jupiter, despite having to cope with an ungainly costume in Act Three. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo took the thankless role of Semele's ditched boyfriend. As Juno's favorite messenger Iris (the one character who spent the opera in unaccountable Elizabethan dress) soprano Katherine Whyte provided character and color to her dialogues with Ms. Summers. Mention must also be made of Americus Abesamis  and Byamba Ulambayar, two brave sumo wrestlers who grappled on the brink of the orchestra pit.

In the final scenes, as Jupiter took the form of an enormous white dragon and crushed/killed/destroyed Semele, the director's purpose in melding these two very different cultures. The last tableau, when the chorus of Jupiter's priests, dressed as Buddhist monks carry Semele offstage while humming The Internationale was an affecting and haunting one. This final funereal scene replaced Handel's original ending chorus (which celebrates the birth of Bacchus, Semele's son) effectively bookending Mr. Zhang's production and ending the opera on a bleak and questioning note.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.