And, yes, it is full of surprises – that probably work best if one experiences them as such. So let me issue a “spoiler alert.” If you haven’t seen Semele yet, and are planning to do so, you may want to stop reading this blog right now.
Yes, this is Regietheater – although it’s not so much an ”update” (like the recent Gianni Schicchi / Florentine Tragedy double-bill), as a transposition of Handel’s opera from ancient Greece to somewhere else.
Director-designer Zhang Huan obviously put a lot of thought into how Semele could be brought into a Chinese world-view, and he was pretty clever as to how he went about it. We see, in a filmed prologue, how an old temple in a Chinese town was taken apart and re-assembled in warehouse in Shanghai, eventually finding its way (via Brussels) to the stage of Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre.
The cleverness resides in the affinities Huan finds between China and ancient Greece. Cultural revolutions notwithstanding, there are still many people in China today who believe in a pantheon of deities for whom the world of mortal humans serves as a kind battleground for their godly power-struggles. Mere mortals who enter this arena of divine conflict quickly find themselves out of their depth – usually with unfortunate results.
The people who originally built the “set” for this production would have understood Semele as a valid cautionary tale with a pertinent moral: avoid over-reaching ambition and show proper respect for supernatural forces. For this reason alone, the concept of Huan’s production is intriguing.
But did it work when mounted on a stage? That’s a complicated question, and different people would no doubt answer it in different ways.
There are some people who find an opera staging unacceptable if it deviates in any way from a literal approach to the libretto. I like to call them “operatic fundamentalists.” For instance, I recently had a post-opera discussion with a man who was irked because the COC’s last production of Tosca – the most literal opera staging I’ve seen for some time – didn’t include a pair of candlesticks set beside the body of Baron Scarpia.
To me, this isn’t sweating the small stuff – it’s sweating the miniscule stuff. Tosca isn’t an opera about candlesticks, and Semele isn’t an opera about Greek temples and togas. People who think these trappings are necessary have lost the forest in the trees.
That said, I don’t mind also saying that I’ve seen a few Regietheater productions that were unmitigated train-wrecks. Often, this is what happens when a director willfully ignores what an opera is essentially about in order to pursue some self-aggrandizing agenda.
Huan’s staging of Semele is no train-wreck – but it’s a bumpy ride. I liked the flying characters, straight out of Chinese cinema. And the sumo wrestlers (Japanese rather than Chinese, but so what?) were an entertaining diversion. But the giant inflatable Somnus (the god of sleep) up on the temple’s roof had the unfortunate effect of transforming the Four Seasons Centre into a used car lot. And the anatomically exaggerated donkey was an entirely gratuitous crudity that I could have done without.
Boldly, Huan also intervened musically – and I can only wonder what Rinaldo Alessandrini, the show’s capable conductor, thought of this incursion into his territory. While I enjoyed Tibetan singer Amchok Gompo Dhondup’s brief folk-song interlude, I found a hummed chorus of The Internationale a poor substitute for Handel’s finale.
Of course, no opera production can be better than its cast. And as with the staging, the COC’s Semele offered an uneven variety of vocal experiences.
In the title role, soprano Jane Archibald was simply outstanding. Both vocally and dramatically, her Semele was sweet and supple – and if singing Handelian roulades is ever made an Olympic sport, she’ll bring home a gold medal for Canada. Allyson McHardy, as the jealous goddess Juno, was a force to be reckoned with. I could listen to her velvety mezzo all day long.
There were fine performances also from bass-baritone Steven Humes as Cadmus and Somnus and soprano Katherine Whyte as Iris. But countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was an underwhelming Athamas. And a complicated wobble in William Burden’s tenor voice made him unsuited to the role of Jupiter. It was also just plain annoying.
Semele brings Toronto’s opera season to a close. It was a remarkable year – surely one of the most daring and adventurous in the COC’s history. By contrast, the repertoire for 2012-13 is pretty safe stuff. But I, for one, hope that the company’s high production standards and commitment to engaging (even if not always entirely successful) direction and design will be upheld.
© Colin Eatock 2012