The killing of Semele: Can art afflict the comfortable without maiming itself?


Somnus (Steven Humes) and his inflatable sidekick in the Canadian Opera Company production of Handel’s Semele (Michael Coper photo).

Contrary to the cliché of the ogre-critic, the last thing the ones I respect and admire want to do is write a scathing review of something a small army of creative people have poured their hearts, souls and wallets into.

But sometimes it’s necessary, as is the case with the Canadian Opera Company’s Semele, a slick, gloriously sung production that jabs a directorial spear through its otherwise vigorous heart.

Shock art is nothing new. There is a thriving community of visual artists, writers, composers, playwrights, producers and performers who want nothing better than to afflict the comfortable — to provoke audiences in order to engage their minds and souls, to make them question the world as it is.

I think we all need a periodic jolt, lest we get complacent or, worse, apathetic.

But Chinese director Zhang Huan has tried so hard to be clever goose that he has undermined the whole enterprise by conflating a 2,000 year-old story from the Greco-Roman tradition with a modern-day Chinese tale of adultery — without giving us the benefit of any additional insight into Chinese culture, contemporary or ancient.

(Just one example: You know a production is in trouble when you have to spend half an hour reading the company’s background essays, interviews and notes in order to understand the meaning of having a donkey on stage.)

But can art afflict the comfortable without maiming itself?

I think so.

We all have our favourite moments. One of mine was breaking down in tears 15 or so years ago at a Stratford production of Shakespeare’s King John that John Neville had re-set as a 20th century war story. I cried because it hit me, then and there, how mankind really is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Which brings me back to Semele, which is about a mortal woman who wants immortality for the sake of love (the opposite of poor Rusalka, who wants to become mortal, with the same unfortunate end). The thing is, the story is not about adultery, as Zhang seems to think, but about upsetting the natural order of things.

In cutting the final, happy chorus, where we find out that Semele’s death is redeemed by the birth of Bacchus, Zhang has — inadvertently, I suspect — underlined even more his fundamental misunderstanding of this story.

Rather than a birth redeeming a lost life, Zhang leaves us in mourning as the chorus sings, “Nature to each allots his proper sphere, but that forsaken, we like meteors err.”

You can hear this chorus at the 52:20 mark in this video of Act III from a wonderful 1999 English National Opera production conducted by Harry Bickett (who conducted the COC’s last Handel opera, Rodelinda):

It just so happens that, a few days ago, I started re-reading a book that’s been sitting on a shelf since graduate school: Renaissance Man, by Agnes Heller.

Heller’s critical thinking comes out of a Marxist background, which ascribes massive shifts in social and political thinking to underlying economic changes. The book is a dense, deeply thought explanation of how economic changes in the Renaissance — the decline of feudal landholding and the rise in entrepreneurial commerce — caused a tectonic shift in how Man saw himself.

In the Medieval world and before, including Ancient Rome and Greece from which the story of uppity Semele comes, a person was born into a natural order. A peasant was a peasant; a king a king. A supernatural force made it all so. And the cycle of life and death and rebith would follow in this mould to the end of time.

The beginnings of capitalism, where a someone born in poverty can make something of themselves, sows the seeds for a person to think of themselves as an individual walking a lifelong path of becoming. We forget that the notion of self is a modern one.

“The concept of dynamic man is an undefinable concept,” writes Heller. “It may be summed up by saying that every conception of human relations became dynamic. Conceptions of value shift: infinity (the infinity of space, time and knowledge) becomes not merely an object of speculation, but an immediate experience, a component of action and behaviour; perfection is no longer an absolute norm, for where everything is in process there can only be constant striving after perfection, but no absolute perfection in the sense of ancient kalokagathia [which translates more or less as a beneficient nobility] or Christian sainthood…”

Handel and Congreve, living and working in a time of incredibly rapid social and technological change, were in the middle of this changing relationship of Man to his self — a shift that made every king and aristocrat very, very nervous (it took three more decades for the turmoil leading up to the French Revolution to show that the nervousness was justified).

This opera makes its original audiences ask, perhaps unconsciously, how far can they can take Creation into their own hands before the whole thing blows us up. But, like any good piece of theatre, the conflict is rendered in human terms.

Zhang has rendered this humanity using some of its basest elements. The trouble is, there’s actually nothing new or compelling about adultery itself, regardless of what language it’s happening in.

What do you think? Am I reading way too much into this?

John Terauds

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4 thoughts on “The killing of Semele: Can art afflict the comfortable without maiming itself?

  1. Well done John! What angers me so much about a production like this is that it reinforces the notion that Handel on its own is boring and directors must do something unorthodox in order to make people interested. How long has it been since Toronto was given a wonderful production of a real Handel opera? Rodelinda? And even that was a bizaare, low budget production.
    Doesn’t Handel deserve better? Doesn’t Toronto deserve better – especially since the highlights of the evening were the female Canadian singers on stage?

  2. I agree John. Much of the visual nonsense I saw on the opera stage last night rode roughshod over Handel’s sublime music. Please dont get me started on the costume choices. And to cut the final joyous chorus? Blasphemy!

  3. What a self-indulgent excessive and mostly meaningless staging and direction to the glorious music of this opera! It seems he crammed every thought he had about what tricks he you throw at the opera, with no appreciation for the text or the music itself! No edit button used, and it puzzles me that no one else exercised the use of an edit button! Why didn’t the COC have the good sense to mount a much more appropriate production! The only effective piece was the mirrored wall — that was cleaver and worked very well. The singing was indeed glorious, with Archibald shimmering! That was a treat.

  4. I don’t think you’re reading too much into this. But I think the intellectual issue here is that we don’t live in the time of Handel, and capitalism’s promise of reinventing the self free from the bounds of what “nature ordains” has proven to be less that one might have hoped. At the same time we have jettisoned the gods, leaving us with a vision of humanity–faithless monks having sex with each other–that is either comic or tragic depending on your point of view.

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