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                          by R. Pikser

Zhang Huan, who directed this production of the Canadian Opera Company’s Semele makes no bones about his directorial experience:  He is a performance artist and this is his first opera.  In this piece, he has worked with some excellent musicians.  Sopranos Jane Archibald as Semele and Katherine Whyte as Iris, were on top of every trill of Handel’s often difficult music. Kyle Ketelsen’s Cadmus was stately and his Somnus was funny and beautifully sung.  Christopher Moulds conducted the performance with welcome stateliness and grace.  The original lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel creates magic.

As talented tyros often do, Mr. Zhang has brought some wonderful ideas and a great deal of freshness to Handel’s opera, with its libretto by William Congreve.  Giant puppets, balls that serve as seats and then as thunderclouds, horses and mules played by two dancers, each representing a different moment in desire (timidity and super-arousal), a beautiful old temple imported from China, the chorus as the monks of the temple, are all exciting innovations.  The entrances made through the back of the house are exciting and fun.  The goddess Iris floating across the stage in front of the moon as she sings is lovely.  We will all be looking for her at the next full moon.  The opening of the piece is totally unexpected, consisting of a series of interviews of people who used to live in a temple in China, the destruction of that temple and its reconstruction in Mr. Zhang’s workshop, are all seen in a black and white film.  Then the movie screen rises, and the audience is visually thrown into the reconstructed temple on the stage.

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Photos by Jack

Semele is a tale of love and lust, jealousy and foolishness that results in tragedy for the poor mortal loved by Jove.  There is plenty of sex implied and Mr. Zhang’s decision to exploit the sexuality of the piece is welcome at first, but then becomes a problem.  In his program notes, Mr. Zhang says that surely the feelings elicited by singing on the actual Great Wall of China are different from singing on a stage set of the Great Wall, and he is correct.  But The Great Wall is actually in China.  Even if it were to be rebuilt on a stage, it would be inside a theater.  The situation would be different.  It is precisely the discipline of theater people is to give themselves to the reality of a stage set, of make believe, of pretending to be gods, or old Greeks, or of pretending that singing opera is speaking.  That is their craft.  Theater is a distillation of reality until it surpasses reality and becomes truer than reality itself.  The idea of the temple, or its recreation would have been sufficient, but this was merely a logistical problem.  Dealing too literally with the sexuality of the piece proved to be a bigger problem.  Sensuality and the transports of love are internal feelings.  To watch the singers pawing each other or rubbing feet while trying to sing the taxing and elegant score was not interesting; it was sad and undercut the power of the opera and of the singers.  Worse, it tried to substitute literal rubbing for seduction.  A few abstract gestures, a little more imagination with regard to what constitutes sexiness, perhaps found with the aid of a choreographer, would have allowed the singers space to fill their bodies, including their voices, with the sensuality that the music and the libretto demand and would have melted, or perhaps excited, us in the audience.  Similarly the concept of the monks engaging in sexual athletics was intriguing, but in the stage reality the singers, not being trained dancers, were uncomfortable and therefore uncomfortable to watch.  Again, this is where imagination was needed, as it was needed when Semele, about to be consumed by Jove’s godly apparition, sings and tells us of her approaching immolation.

These criticisms are made because the piece needed more specificity, but of a different kind.  Another critique has to do with interpretation, with the reasons for certain choices.  Why is Ino, Semele’s sister, who parallels Juno’s longing for her philandering consort, not portrayed sympathetically as she pines for Semele’s rejected lover, Athamas, well sung by countertenor Lawrence Zazzo.  Athamas himself is very funny because his overwhelming desire is bigger than life, expressing the subtext of his words and allowing him to show feelings that are forbidden in society, yet that we all know.  We believe him and laugh at and with him as he tries to hump anything in sight from horses to columns as he tries to convince Semele to marry him.  But then he was directed to ham things up, to jump around like a frog, to make faces, undercutting the truth and the pain of his desires.  Why? Ino’s unrequited longing for him is never dealt with.  Why not?  How do these directorial choices help us to understand the situation of these people and to relate it to our own?  Why is Juno portrayed as a mugging clown?  Surely the jealousy of a scorned wife is a valid pain that many can relate to, especially as her pain, not her stupidity, causes the entire denouement of the piece.  Mr. Zhang knows about the power of jealousy.  He was attracted, he says, to the temple as a set for Semele because of the jealousy of the former dweller that caused the man to commit murder.  That was not a joke, any more than Juno’s pain at her rejection and her resultant passion for revenge are jokes.

Theatrical exploration of the truth of a situation can bring about marvels if the work is deep.  The insertion of Sumo wrestlers with no relation of their art form to the rest of the piece, or the one-time appearance of a Tibetan singer, even one with a beautiful voice, indicate that the director has lost confidence in his vision and is throwing in images for the sake of throwing them in.  Good theatrical work is necessary, on whatever level.  Mr. Zhang need not doubt himself.  He should not allow himself to yield to facile ideas when he has so much imagination to offer.

Canadian Opera Company
Performing Handel’s Semele
March 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 2015
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Avenue
Brooklyn, NY.
Tickets $36-$60