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Canadian Opera Company

In Review Canadian Opera Semele hdl 812
Archibald and Burden, Semele and Jupiter in Toronto
© Michael Cooper 2012

Canadian Opera Company's first-ever production of Handel's Semele (seen May 9) was a complex mix of superb singing and terrible direction. The production, borrowed from the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie and KT Wong Foundation, was directed by renowned Chinese conceptual artist (and first-time opera director) Zhang Huan and featured as its set an actual 450-year-old Chinese temple that Zhang saved from destruction. Musically, the opera was a pleasure, with an outstanding performance from soprano Jane Archibald in the title role. Dramatically, as often in Regietheater, the production was a mess, with Zhang's whims, rather than consistency of tone or conception, dictating the stage action. 

The program noted that Zhang cut the opera short and deliberately omitted Ino's marriage and Apollo's prediction of Bacchus's birth, along with the subsequent triumphal chorus. Instead Zhang wanted to end the opera "leaving the singers to lament Semele's death." This might suggest a serious portrayal of events, but just the opposite was the case. Zhang gave Athamas (Anthony Roth Costanzo) a red pantomime donkey for a companion; its antics proved a constant distraction. Athamas's big aria about his passion, "Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare," ended with his kissing the donkey's behind. Zhang cut Semele's lovely Act I aria "The morning lark to mine accords his note" and left her with "Endless pleasure, endless love," which she sang floating above the temple with the moon behind her swinging like a pendulum. After this, Zhang inserted a traditional song sung by the Tibetan Amchok Gompo Dhondup about a girl carried away by a bird, seemingly to underscore a parallel between the Greek myth and Asian folklore. Costume designer Han Feng dressed Cadmus (Steven Humes) and Semele as Chinese nobles and the chorus as Buddhist priests but garbed Athamas and the gods as sixteenth-century Europeans. The meaning of this contrast remained obscure. 

In Act II, for which the temple had been decorated to represent Jupiter's secret love nest, the pantomime donkey returned, now with a huge erection, and tried to mount the various gathered nymphs and swains. The nymphs and swains, incongruously clad like priests, became aroused and cavorted in modern-day boxer shorts, bras and panties. In the following scene, Somnus (also Steven Humes) was discovered in bed on top of the temple with an enormous inflatable plastic doll. 

Besides these and innumerable other bizarre touches, Zhang began and ended the opera badly. During the overture, he showed a silent documentary on the discovery and rebuilding of the temple, as if the temple, not Semele, were the main story. Zhang finished the opera with the chorus lamenting Semele's death while a temple sweeper moved past. They sang, "Nature to each allots his proper sphere, / But that forsaken we like meteors err," after which Zhang had them hum the Internationale. Did Zhang mean this affirmation in a Western opera of the rightness of a social hierarchy as a critique of the West or of modern China? After all the nonsense that had gone before, it was impossible to tell.

This was one of those opera productions best heard, not seen. Archibald, with her incredibly rapid runs and fearlessly accurate leaps to stratospheric notes, was simply spectacular. Her showpiece aria, "Myself I shall adore," deservedly received the longest sustained applause of the evening, but she was also beautifully touching in the slow aria "With fond desiring."

With her powerful, dark mezzo-soprano, Allyson McHardy clearly distinguished her two roles, the rash, girlish Ino and the imperious Juno, the latter unfortunately clad like an evil cartoon queen. She sang her rage aria, "Hence, Iris, hence away," to tremendous effect. As her messenger Iris, misrepresented here as a silly maid, Katherine Whyte gave a terrific account of "There, from mortal cares retiring." 

Among the men, Steven Humes wielded a wonderfully rich bass and well differentiated his two roles as the authoritative Cadmus and the comically lethargic Somnus. Anthony Roth Costanzo's countertenor was fairly bland until his flourishes and ornamentation revealed a voice with more fullness and body. Tenor William Burden did not appear to the best advantage as Jupiter. His habit of beginning every line with an Italianate sob was tiresome, and under pressure his voice became nasal and undermined the effect of his ornamentation.

Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini's tempos were all well chosen, but he made no attempt to draw from the COC Orchestra a lighter tone more in keeping with the period. Other Baroque specialists, such as Harry Bicket, have been able to make the COC Orchestra sound remarkably like a band of period instruments, but under Alessandrini it sounded distinctly heavy. 

The parade of Zhang's bad ideas did not end with the last curtain. As the audience exited, a recording of Handel's ending that Zhang omitted was broadcast over the lobby speakers — a final reminder of everything he had spoiled. spacer 


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