Resetting an opera in a different time and place happens all the time, and works fine when the director manages to preserve the essence of the composer and librettist’s intentions.
But, in trying to create a rapprochement between Chinese and European traditions, Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan has made a wreck out of the most popular full-length English Baroque opera, Semele, a work that bursts with some of the most beautiful music George Frideric Handel wrote.
Master playwright William Congreve’s dramatic libretto for this 1743 opera is inspired by Roman poet Ovid’s 2,000-year-old Metamorphoses. The set is dominated by a real Medieval Chinese temple, and the production takes advantage of every trick of modern stagecraft to turn this work into a shambles that is nonetheless saved by the some of the most fabulous singing heard in Toronto this season.
Nova Scotia native soprano Jane Archibald is alone worth the price of a ticket. She is spectacular in the title role, as a spoiled girl who spurns her fiancé for Jupiter, king of the gods.
The rest of the vocal cast is also strong.
Among the Canadians, mezzo Allyson McHardy is all creamy, dark magic as Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno (and Ino, Semele’s sister). Soprano Katherine Whyte is also excellent as Juno’s sidekick, Iris.
The visiting Americans do a fine job, with bass Steven Humes a stout Cadmus (Semele’s father) and Somnus, the god of sleep. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo makes an impressive show of his physical prowess as Athamas, Semele’s spurned fiancé.
But while tenor William Burden, as Jupiter, has a fine voice, he rarely seemed at ease with the florid demands of Handel’s bravura arias at the production’s opening night on Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre.
Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini wrings a fine, period-style sound from the COC Orchestra, giving Handel’s divine music all the lift and lilt it needs.
The story ends badly for Semele, who gives up her life in her quest for immortality.
Unfortunately, it ends no better for Zhang, who designed and directed this production, first seen in Beijing and Brussels in 2009, around a Ming Dynasty temple he bought and dismantled outside of Shanghai.
The temple is the most imposing example of a production festooned with Chinese and other Asian references, often completely at odds with the libretto and the music.
On stage, everything and everyone, sumptuously dressed by Han Feng, looks gorgeous, but what we see is too frequently out of sync with the story.
The list of crimes against the plot, characters and logic is a long one, hardly redeemed by a spectacular coup de théâtre in Act III, as Semele sings the opera’s great fireworks aria, “Myself I shall adore.”
The production’s nadir comes as a chorus of Buddhist monks tear off their robes in order to have sex, as part of entertainment that Jupiter organizes for Semele.
Just as bad, later in Act II, is seeing two Sumo wrestlers go at each other as the chorus, now back in their robes, sings, “And to that pitch the eternal accents raise that all appear divine.”
At the end, as further punishment, we are deprived of Handel’s redemptive chorus, in favour of lamenting Semele’s demise.
Zhang tries to tie in Semele’s fate with that of the temple’s final occupant, with the help of bookended video footage. But, like hearing the chorus humming the Communist Internationale as they carry off Semele’s red coffin, it is a head-scratcher.
If you go for the music — and the manifold pleasures of hearing Archibald in full flight — you won’t be disappointed. But go for operatic cohesion, and disappointment awaits.
There will be a special performance on May 23 featuring a cast made up of members from the COC’s Ensemble Studio.