S&H Opera Review

HANDEL Semele San Francisco Opera, 1 November 2000 (HE)

Handel’s Semele, a music drama adapted from Congreve’s opera libretto, has a claim to be the greatest work of English-language music theatre. It presents a familiar but essential mythical story of sex and its consequences with reflective humour and in music that is both alluring and moving. Its main rivals are Purcell’s Dido (which has a mediocre libretto) and a handful of works from the last century, including Porgy and your choice of Weill, Porter and Sondheim. Porter’s Out of this world, by coincidence recently revived by 42nd Street Moon, is about divine philandering in a similar atmosphere of dreaminess and resignation. But while the wonderfully witty songs have coherent emotional substance, there isn’t a stable book or even plot. Lady in the dark likewise has funny, moving musical dream visions but a desperately dated book and a premise beyond rescue. Sondheim’s through composed works -- perhaps A little night music and Passion have the best claim to mainstream greatness  -- use music to colour speech and character on a human scale, not on the mythical scale that makes Semele so wonderfully overloaded.

But Semele is in an important sense not a theatrical work at all. Handel wrote it to be performed like an oratorio, in concert. There are grand effects -- the flaming altars, the arrival of Juno (borrowed by Porter) and Iris, and the castle guarded by dragons -- that Congreve prescribed in the manner of the turn-of-the-century London theatre. But Handel delivered them in the music if essential, or left them sketched in the libretto if purely functional, so that no visual spectacle was required. Though it is difficult to resist staging a work that is deeply sensuous and also sends up opera singers something rotten, the staging always risks adding something unnecessary or contradictory. It is not only the expense of providing the dragons that explains why there have been comparatively few stage productions.

This one, originally from Covent Garden, has been around since 1982. It follows the Hippocratic principle and does no harm, and also looks good. Its main aim seems to be to provide visual decor based on baroque paintings of Greek mythological subjects and costumes appropriate to an opera of Handel’s time. So there are Grecian columns, looming black clouds, a pastoral glade and lots of reds and golds, while the principal women wear eighteenth-century hooped dresses and wigs, the mortal men oriental gear and Jupiter an Italianate spin on a toga. The chorus (seen only at the beginning and end) wears white Grecian drapes, more in tune with the paintings than the stage. The direction consists mainly of putting the singers in painterly groups, plus a bit of business with Somnus and (an alarmingly young looking) Pasithea, and a machine joke for Iris. The scene changes and effects are achieved mainly with scrims and flats, but there is a certain amount of clunkiness, not only of the audible kind. For example, Semele and Ino sing the celestial duet at the end of act two in the Arcadian grove conjured up for Where e’er you walk, surrounded by nymphs and shepherds. The stage directions might imply that this is right, but it doesn’t work.

Charles Mackerras found rich, deep but subdued colours in the music to match the decor. Semele has a lot of humour, but it isn’t a bravura work like some of the operas, and Mackerras’ autumnal mood seemed exactly right. The singers, all outstandingly well cast, were in general similarly understated, projecting in the vast house by means of focus and control rather than fireworks. There was an interesting nose-to-nose between Ruth Ann Swenson, essentially a nineteenth-century voice-based singer, and Sarah Connolly, a modern-style Handel specialist who has incomparably more theatrical sense and style. Swenson as Semele looked right, a glowing, luscious blond dumpling, Rembrandt’s Saskia without the wistfulness. She also sent herself up splendidly when appropriate, especially in Myself I shall adore, Handel’s Glitter and be gay. But her singing was so smooth that the consonants often fell off, in the style of Joan Sutherland: in the duet at the end of act two, Swenson sang the sublime melody to “burble burble burble”, then Connolly sang the words. Connolly had the toughest task of the evening in several respects. She sang both Ino and Juno, each a substantial role in itself, and so had to act to indicate when she was Juno-as-Ino. She also had to be both the wussy sister and the persecuting bully of a popular star and still engage the audience. She did both in style.  Christine Brandes as Iris was bright, vocally and personally, and funny.

John Mark Ainsley, looking dishy with hair, didn’t quite sing on a cosmic scale as Jupiter, though his voice is still beautiful. John Relyea sounded terrific, authoritative as Cadmus and amusing as Somnus. Brian Asawa sang Athamas’ surviving aria and his ensembles charmingly and apparently effortlessly. Athamas is probably the most thankless role in Handel’s oeuvre, and Asawa didn’t get much help from the production. John Ames, last seen as the benign, slightly nerdy warden of Angola prison in Dead Man Walking, sounded pretty good and looked impeccably eighteenth-century in the small role of the priest.

H.E. Elsom

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