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A perplexing show

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/09/2012 -  & May 11, 13, 16, 19, 22, 23, 24, 26, 2012
George Frideric Handel: Semele
Jane Archibald (Semele), William Burden (Jupiter), Allyson McHardy (Ino/Juno), Anthony Roth Costanza (Athamas), Steven Humes (Cadmus/Somnus), Katherine Whyte (Iris)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Rinaldo Alessandrini (Conductor)
Zhang Huan (Director/Set Designer), Su Jie (Associate Director), Han Feng (Costume Designer), Wolfgang Göbbel (Original Lighting Designer)

A. McHardy & J. Archibald (© Michael Cooper)

Zhang Huan’s production of Semele, first seen in Brussels in 2009, is in many ways a dazzling presentation of the opera until towards the end it disappears into an abyss of directorial whimsicality. It could well be titled “Semele truncated, with additions by Mr Zhang Huan”.

The first warning sign that things might veer off course comes during the overture when we are treated to a documentary film about the set. Zhang Huan bought a 450-year-old temple which turns out to have had an eventful history. In the 1980s it was inhabited by a couple who had marital difficulties; the husband plotted to murder his wife’s lover and was executed. The films shows the temple being disassembled, moved and then reconstructed in the artist’s Shanghai studio/factory where he employs 100 assistants. Since then it has been transported to Brussels for the premiere run of this production, then back to China in 2010, and now to Toronto.

I suspect Zhang is trying to tie the temple’s fraught history to the plot of the opera. This does not work.

The temple is a plain, weathered wooden structure missing its roof tiles, but with a few touches of intricate carving. With clever lighting - whether gold, brilliant red or green - it turns out to be a wonderful setting for Semele, and I can envisage it as a successful setting for numerous operas.

The plot is pretty straightforward for an opera seria: Jupiter, King of the gods, is in love with a mortal, Semele. She has a fiancé, Athamas, who is loved by her sister, Ino. Jupiter’s wife, Juno, is outraged by this and successfully plots to have Semele ask Jupiter to reveal himself to her in all his godly glory. This results in Semele being burned to death. Cupid appears and reveals that out of her ashes a new god, Bacchus, will arise. Ino and Athamas are free to marry.

This version ends with the death of Semele and the chorus’s “Oh terror and astonishment”. Cupid never arrives and the Athamas-Ino mating never occurs. Instead the chorus solemnly hums “The Internationale” (yes, the communist anthem) - I can’t decide if this was supposed to be campy, given the many lighthearted directorial ideas presented throughout. The projection screen descends and we see a film of a woman’s face dissolving. The screen lifts and a woman silently sweeps the stage. We get to hear the final chorus over the lobby’s sound system as we leave. Zhang states that his ending is in keeping with Buddhist beliefs. Frankly I would prefer something in keeping with the composer’s intentions.

Another (Buddhist?) interjection occurs at the end of Act I: a Tibetan singer, Amchok Gompo Dhondup, wanders down a theatre aisle and on to the stage singing a folk song - something evocative about a golden river, golden tree, golden bird. So what?

Not that the staging is bereft of entertainment value. As mentioned above, the set and lighting work extremely well. In Act II the set is augmented with a bamboo grove - very nice. The costumes can be best described as eclectic/sumptuous, with brilliant silks the main event. The placement of the singers - sometimes on the roof of the temple, for example - works well. Semele gets to deliver her “Endless pleasure, endless love” while floating through the air - this is enchanting.

The director inserts playful elements. Athamas, the unsuccessful suitor, is treated as an ineffectual comic character. At one point he tussles with a chorus member over possession of a figurine, the identity of which is unclear. It’s a pity that Anthony Roth Costanza is cheated of his third act aria; if his voice comes across as a bit small, he creates a winning persona.

Much playfulness occurs toward the end of Act II. Jupiter attempts to entertain Semele; a tumescent donkey cavorts about the stage (no, not a real donkey); the chorus members doff their robes and assume various Kama Sutra poses. A pair of sumo wrestlers (recipients of considerable media coverage) roll about the stage and then walk off hand-in-hand.

The most successful staging gambit is with the super-scaled magic mirror Juno gives to Semele; a giant mylar screen filling the entire proscenium descends and this reflects the entire audience to itself (see photo above). This creates an amazingly effective setting for Semele’s extended “Myself I shall adore”, Jane Archibald’s show-stopping number. Another good idea was depicting her death, not by fire (hard to achieve especially since she has to sing a few pathetic lines whilst undergoing incineration) but in the coils of a dragon. Now: a dragon is a Chinese cliché - but in this case is not a directorial interjection as a dragon is specifically mentioned in the libretto.

Ms Archibald is deprived of her Act I introductory aria, which is a pity. (The vexing question of cuts frequently arises in Handel productions.) This still leaves her with lots to sing - and she is absolutely ideal for the role. William Burden’s warm, rich tenor is equally ideal as Jupiter. He gets the work’s most famous aria, “Where’er you walk”. It is taken rather slowly but he has the breath to sustain the long lines.

Steven Humes stands out as Cadmus (Semele’s father) and Somnus, the god of sleep. The clarity of diction is relatively high from everyone but Mr Humes deserves special commendation. Katherine Whyte sings strongly as Iris whose main job is to be bossed around by Juno.

Debuting conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini achieves a nice balance between warmth and buoyancy, briskness and stateliness. The continuo includes harpsichord and theorbo, both projecting nicely in the FSC.

One puzzling dramatic lapse occurs when Juno resolves to take on the appearance of Ino to persuade Semele ask Jupiter to reveal his true, glorious, flaming (literally) self. Allyson McHardy ably plays both Juno and Ino, with distinctly contrasting costumes and wigs (a kind of Lady Gaga look for Ino). One would expect that when Juno actually impersonates Ino she would make an attempt to resemble her - but in this case she does not. (Am I missing something?)

Incidentally this quite a big week in Toronto for Zhang Huan. In addition to this opera production, he has a show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and just across the street from the Four Seasons Centre a glitzy multi-million dollar sculpture of his has been unveiled in front of the new Shangri-la Hotel.

There is much to enjoy in this staging and it is musically sound until the final act is truncated. The May 23 performance, with reduced ticket prices ($55 top), features members of the company’s Ensemble Studio taking on the main roles. This is the third year for such a special performance; the two previous (Mozart’s Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte) were both very successful. Highly recommended.

Michael Johnson



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