High-Tech Videos Light Fire Under Seattle’s ‘Semele’

Brenda Rae sings the title role in Seattle Opera's production of Handel's 'Semele.'  (Photo by Avid Loud)
Brenda Rae sings the title role in Seattle Opera’s production of Handel’s ‘Semele,’ as staged by Tomer Zvulun.
(Photo by Avi Loud)
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE — Handel’s gorgeous Semele has come back into fashion, as has much else of  his operatic output. But it’s unlikely that the work has ever been presented as currently seen at the Seattle Opera through March 7, thanks to the imaginative use of the latest in computer projection technology in Tomer Zvulun‘s staging.

Amanda Forsythe (left) as Iris and Stephanie Blythe as Juno. (Elise Bakketun)
Amanda Forsythe as Iris and Stephanie Blythe as Juno. (Elise Bakketun)

Musically, the production (seen Feb. 21) hews to Baroque style, though with a small orchestra of modern instruments in the pit, plus lute and harpsichord. And experienced Handelian Gary Thor Wedow conducts from the virginal. Singers manage articulated runs and ornamentation with ease.

Visually, however, the presentation is 21st century. Erhard Rom’s structural sets are simple: five steps the width of the stage and placed halfway back; light white, see-through floor-to-ceiling curtains that slide in and out as needed; a ceiling-high panel of what seem to be windows slanted forward at one side, a pillar at the other. A small upper level with steps and a railing lies on the right in the earthly scenes. A wide bed lies at left in the celestial ones.

All is a monochromatic pale gray or white. Only Juno’s dwelling is a golden beige, with plain walls and, behind her big chair, a ceiling-high grid. Somnus, the god of sleep, snores on a love seat in front of a dark curtain emblazoned with SOMNUS’ Bar and Lounge in neon. All of this makes a perfect backdrop for projections that are used ingeniously throughout to forward or enhance the action, as do lightning and thunder.

Brenda Rae, left, as Semele and Alek Shrader as Jupiter. (Elise Bakketun)
Brenda Rae as Semele and Alek Shrader as Jupiter. (Elise Bakketun)

The basic story is simple, taken from Greek myth with an English libretto by the 18th-century English playwright William Congreve. A mortal girl, in love with Jupiter in mortal form, is engaged to Athamas. She defies her father Cadmus and assembled guests, and begs Jupiter to save her. He spirits her away to a mountaintop palace where he visits her, sending her sister Ino to keep her from getting bored. But Jupiter’s wife, Juno, is furious at her philandering spouse. She persuades Somnus, god of sleep, to make Jupiter crazed with lust. Then, disguised as Ino, she persuades Semele to request an unexplained favor from Jupiter: to appear to her in his godlike form. This, Juno says, will enable Semele to attain immortality and become equal to Jupiter. Jupiter must assent, even knowing the sight of his true image will consume Semele in fire, which it does. End of story, except that Bacchus is born from Semele’s ashes.

The cast was excellent, though with some imbalances. Stephanie Blythe sang superbly and expressively as both Juno and Ino. As Ino, her first act aria “Turn, Hopeless Lover” was one of many notable moments. She acted well also, but as Ino, her clarion voice overwhelmed countertenor Randall Scotting as Athamus in their duets at the end of Act 1. His constant vibrato made it hard at times to know just which note he was on, and his frilly sound, perhaps lacking insufficient abdominal support, did not suit the role.

Scotting came across as a bespectacled wimp in a drab gray suit — a far cry from glamorous Jupiter, who had bright, shoulder-length hair, and sported gold leather and a sparkling cloak. Jupiter was admirably sung by tenor Alek Shrader as the ardent lover ready to do anything to delight his new girl, as evidenced in the exquisite aria “Where’er You Walk.” But in the end, this Jupiter was no match for Blythe’s infuriated Juno.

Bass-baritone John Del Carlo, as Semeles’ father Cadmus, displayed a voice as big as Blythe’s. He also sang Somnus, and his “Leave Me Loathsome Light” was one of many highlights of the performance, as was the long cloak he wore emblazoned with the stars of the night sky correctly arrayed as LED constellations.

A scene from Seattle Opera's production of 'Semele.' (Alan Alabastro)
A scene from Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Semele.’ (Alan Alabastro)

Soprano Brenda Rae, as Semele, sang with ease. Her narcissistic aria “Myself I Shall Adore” was accentuated by projections of her face appearing all over the set, and she later displayed melismatic roulades from the top of her range to the bottom. As a lively Iris, Juno’s Mercury-like handmaid, soprano Amanda Forsythe provided much of the light relief as she tried to please her exacting mistress.

The Seattle Opera chorus sang Handel’s music with panache. The production included six dancers, choreographed by Donald Byrd, who helped keep the action moving in long arias. Experienced production designer Vita Tzykun made her debut as costume designer, choosing ageless looks with plenty of glitter for Juno. The projections had clouds, snowy mountaintop, pink roses, and sometimes a dropped screen with a vision of Jupiter among other artful uses, and the production benefited from director Zvulun’s myriad clever touches.

At the end, when Semele is burned up amid thunderclaps and lightning, Jupiter’s head appears on a large screen surrounded by flames and Semele sinks down in front of it, repentant, though too late. It seemed odd that at this point Jupiter and the flames were in black and white and Semele collapsed and died with no sign of being burned. Given what was Robert Wierzel’s brilliant lighting had achieved elsewhere in the production, one could only wonder, why?

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle TimesCity Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.