The Seattle Opera has launched a new production of Handel’s 1744 opera “Semele”, about Jupiter’s affair with a human being who turns out to be the mother of Bacchus (Dionysius).
Cleverly staged by Tomer Zvulun with impressive sets and projections by Erhard Rom, it provided a vehicle for triumphant performances by Brenda Rae in the title role and Alek Shrader as Jupiter and a star turn for Stephanie Blythe.
[Below Jupiter (Alek Shrader, right) adopts a human form to seduce Semele (Brenda Rae, left); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Both Rae and Shrader showed mastery of Handel’s expressive and sustained legato lines with passages of lyric coloratura.
Brenda Rae’s Semele
Previously I had enjoyed Rae’s performances in other roles that require sustained legato with bursts of coloratura , notably Violetta [Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013].
These qualities are were also present in the tour de force of Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 double bill, which gave her an opportunity to show her skills at operatic comedy [See Review: A Hilarious “Impresario” Creates a “Rossignol” Land of Enchantment – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2014.]
Rae’s Semele’s show-stopping Myself I shall Adore with its coloratura fireworks deservedly drew a great ovation.
[Below: Brenda Rae (right) is Semele and Alek Shrader (left) is Jupiter; edited image, based on an Avi Loud photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Alek Shrader’s Jupiter
Shrader’s voice has coloratura flexibility for which he is justly famous. Shrader is especially associated with the comic roles of Rossini and Donizetti [see Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014, yet his voice has a baritonal quality that is especially effective in this heroic Handel role.
In my recent interview with him, he spoke of the challenges of singing Handel [Rising Stars – An Interview with Alek Shrader, which he has performed at the San Francisco Opera in a “tongue-in-cheek” comic presentation [See Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014.]
[Below: Jupiter (Alek Shrader, right) has brought Semele (Brenda Rae, left) to a “secret” place where they can pursue their relationship; edited image, based on a Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
But the part of Jupiter in this production is a romantic role, a sex-obsessed prince charming. One is easily convinced that a god seeking a human form to pursue women would indeed choose Shrader’s body clothed in designer Vita Tzykun’s seductive costume.
Stephanie Blythe’s Juno and Ino
The principal comic roles in Zvulun’s production are those of Stephanie Blythe as Juno and Amanda Forsythe as Juno’s hilarious servant/sidekick Iris.
[Below: the goddess Juno (Stephanie Blythe, right) plots revenge against her errant husband with her servant and spy Iris (Amanda Forsythe, right); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Blythe’s vocal performance was memorable, her deep dramatic mezzo bringing power and beauty to what might be described as three roles – the goddess Juno, Semele’s sister Ino, and Juno disguising herself as Ino for villanous purposes that lead to Semele’s demise.
One of the most remarkable artists singing today, Blythe showed a different talent for which there is no opportunity to show off in her famous roles composed by Wagner and Verdi. She has superb comic timing and proved to be a brilliant comedienne.
Stage director Tzykun obviously unleashed Blythe and Forsythe to create “over-the-top” performances.
That Blythe was able simultaneously to provide such a display of elegantly phrased vocal sound, while causing the audience to roar with laughter, showed what a formidable talent this great artist has become.
[Below: Ino (Stephanie Blythe, above) is in love with Athamas (Randall Scotting, below); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Others in the Cast
Counter-tenor Randall Scotting sang the relatively small role of Athamas, the man to whom Semele, against her will, has been promised in marriage.
Bass John Del Carlo had two roles, the latter of which, the god (of sleep) Somnus, best fit the veteran basso’s voice and comedic talents. His other role was Cadmus, father of Semele and Ino. Tory Pell was Pasithea. The conductor was Gary Thor Wedow.
Olympus and Valhalla
The opera has a plot that resembles that of a more familiar opera that was first performed just over a century and a quarter after “Semele’s” premiere.
In the 1744 opera, “Semele”, the queen of the gods, Juno, is the gaurdian of marriage. Her husband Jupiter, the most powerful god, is a philanderer who wanders Earth in disguise. He offends Juno as a spouse by his flagrant affair with Semele. He offends Juno as a goddess because the subject of Jupiter’s affection, Semele, is engaged to be married to Athamas, and Juno has officially blessed their impending marriage. Juno seeks revenge.
[Below: in one of Erhardom’s projections of the realm of the god Jupiter, Jupiter (Alek Shrader, left) shows Semele (Brenda Rae, right) a view of earth from their celestial love-nest; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
In the 1870 opera, “Die Walküre”, the queen of the gods, Fricka, is the guardian of marriage. Her husband Wotan, the most powerful god, is a philanderer who wanders Earth in disguise. He offends Fricka as a spouse by his flagrant affair with Erda. He offends Fricka as a goddess because she officially defends the marriage of one of his offspring, Sieglinde,to Hunding, and Wotan is attempting to have Sieglinde’s brother slay Sieglinde’s husband and become her lover. Fricka seeks revenge.
(One notes that Stephanie Blythe has triumphed as both Fricka and Juno at the Seattle Opera. See Wagner’s “Walküre” Victoriously Revived at Seattle Opera – August 5, 2013.)
There is another parallel between “Semele” and “Die Walküre” (the valkyrie referred in the opera’s title is Brunnhilde.) The fates of both end in their immolations, although Brunnhilde’s is voluntary and Semele’s is an act of calculated murder by Juno.
Juno uses trickery to persuade Semele to demand that Jupiter make love to her not in his human form but in his form as a god. The sex act with a powerful god burns Semele to ashes, but from her ashes Bacchus/Dionysius is born.
The announcement of Bacchus’ birth is made by Apollo. (Shrader, not only is Jupiter, but performs the brief role of Apollo, whose image shows above the stage in the final scene.)
[Below: Apollo (Alek Shrader, on screen above) announces the birth of Bacchus; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
I suggest that Handel’s 1744 opera “Semele” has the power to connect with 21st century audiences in a way that it failed to do with audiences of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s an opera about sexual passion, extramarital affiars and the spousal revenge that such affairs might inspire.
I recommend it to experienced opera-goers as a fine display of exemplary contemporary singing of baroque opera in an absorbing production.
For those unfamiliar with baroque opera, I would recommend this production as an introduction to it.