Semele at the Canadian Opera Company

From Plaid Magazine

HANDEL’S MYTHOLOGICAL OPERA GETS AN EASTERN TOUCH

Semele

Images courtesy of  Chris Hutcheson

You can’t talk about Semele without mentioning the temple. That is, the 450-year-old Ming Dynasty ancestral temple that director Zhang Huan discovered and transported to the stage from a small town west of Shanghai. Clearly, one can’t fault this production for lack of vision. Doubling as both a Buddhist monastery and a mythical palace, the set acts as a wonderful grounding for the fantastical events to come.

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Semele is filled with such surprises (a running gag involving a horse with a massive erection, for one) which ensure that this staging of the 18th century opera is unlike any that have come before it. The show’s original plot, in which a mortal woman named Semele falls in love with the god Jupiter, much to the anger of his vengeful wife Juno, is now injected with Eastern symbolism and Buddhist philosophy which results in a truly unique opera experience.

The Eastern influence is most clearly seen in the production’s sumptuous costumes and scenery. In addition to the temple, the opera’s chorus is dressed in the vibrant orange dress of Buddhist monks, and in the show’s second half a massive Chinese dragon marches across the stage. Director Zhang Huan is a classically-trained painter from Beijing, and his artistic vision and attention to detail are clear throughout the show’s magnificent staging.

It goes without saying the music always comes first in opera, and in this regard Semele truly astounds. As the title character, Nova Scotia’s Jane Archibald is outstanding. It’s an incredibly demanding role, but her passionate intensity only builds throughout the show’s nearly three-hour running time. William Burden, whose Jupiter resembles a romance novel cover model, complete with puffy shirt and velvet pants, is able to transcend the Fabio hair and craft a powerful performance as the almighty king of the gods. Allyson McHardy is alternatively tender and malicious as both Semele’s sister Ino and her nemesis Juno, and Anthony Roth Costanzo is hilarious as Semele’s effeminate mortal fiancé.

Also a standout is singer Amchok Gompo Dhondup, who delivers a haunting a capella performance of a Tibetan song not present in Handel’s original score. While certainly beautiful, it’s also difficult to place the song in context within the show, an issue that also arises with the later arrival of sumo wrestlers and the Chinese dragon. Each element is lovely in its own right, but their symbolism becomes confusing when mixed with the Greek myth of the original play. Herein lies the major weakness of the production: its inconsistency. It’s awful to have to criticise an artist for overreaching, but the directors’ vision, while fabulously ambitious, is stretched a little too far. Semele is already a fragmented play, with its hero alternating from the mortal realm to her palace among the gods, and the addition of elements from the disparate cultures of China, Japan, and Tibet to the proceedings complicates to the point where meaning is obscured. The change in the show’s ending to better fit with the tenets of Buddhist philosophy is the most egregious example of this, a change which seems to contradict the tone of everything that comes before it.

While often perplexing, (is this comedy or tragedy? and what’s with the horse erection?) this Semele is always entertaining. The terrific performances and sumptuously beautiful sets and costumes alone make this Semele a wonderful, and unpredictable, night at the opera.

Strapped for cash? Approximately 150 seats are reserved for ticket buyers under 30, and run for only $22 each.

The COC is also running a free concert series from June until September. Check out http://www.coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/FreeConcertSeries.aspx for more information.

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