Deconstructing Semele

When a director’s note in an opera programme contains in its first paragraph the following one has, I think, cause for concern.

there are very few people who understand opera, and even fewer artists who understand it.  I too do not understand opera, but I like doing things out of the ordinary.

Zhang Huan’s production of Handel’s Semele for the Canadian Opera Company, first seen at the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in 2009, is certainly “out of the ordinary” but it doesn’t show much understanding of opera.

The whole production concept appears to be driven by Huan’s discovery and acquisition of a Ming dynasty family temple in a state of decay n a Chinese village.  The temple has a story.  At one point, post use as a temple, it was occupied by a man who got jealous of his wife’s lover, killed him and was executed for it.  In every respect other than this, commonplace enough, story the temple is unremarkable.  It isn’t very beautiful and it isn’t even very old; most any country parish church in England is older.  Huan somehow sees a connection between this unremarkable building with it’s squalid tale and Handel’s setting of Congreve’s libretto about the mortal Semele who is loved by a God but overreaches and comes to a sticky end; an ancient and timeless and utterly classic story of hubris and nemesis.  This loose connection and a bunch of generalisations about “the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings” are used to justify changing both the story and the music quite substantially.  Therein lies the problem.  Huan doesn’t know enough about opera to create one and that’s what he has tried to do.

The problems start with the overture.  While it’s playing, a black and white documentary about the squalid history of the temple is projected onto the stage.  It’s got nothing to do with what follows and it’s a distraction. It’s mirrored at the end when a dissolving portrait of the murderer’s wife (I guess) is projected as the final scene. It gets more peculiar in between.   Understandably, a lot of the print criticism has focussed on some of the fairly pointless staging interpolations like the stage donkey with the enormous penis, the half heartedly shagging monks, the gratuitous Sumo wrestlers and a giant blow up doll.  That doesn’t bother me too much though I don’t really feel that the slapstick elements added much except cheap laughs.  What does bother me is restructuring the opera musically in a way that doesn’t work.  There’s a bizarre decision to cut a major aria for Semele in Act 1 in favour of a Tibetan folk singer which completely unbalances the role.  It leaves two big lyrical arias in Act 2 and all the coloratura fireworks in Act 3 rather than framing the two big lyric arias with the fireworks.  To cap it all there is the bizarre ending where Handel’s redemptive final scene and chorus is replaced by the chorus humming a rather downbeat version of The Internationale while the aforementioned dissolving portrait is projected.  (One wonders what percentage of a Four Seasons Centre audience even knew it was The Internationale)  It is possible to get away with that kind of dramatic (in every sense) restructuring but it takes a sure hand and a sure ear for the music.  Unfortunately Huan has neither.

There were some effective theatrical moments.  The aerial staging of “Endless pleasure” was appropriate and effective.  Somnus and his squeeze on the temple roof was a good idea despite the blow up doll which made the thing look like a car dealership on the Queensway.  The use of mirrors in Act 3 was spectacular though the transition was pretty hard on the audience with blinding flashes straight into the auditorium.  It wasn’t enough though to make up for the basic lack of coherence.

It’s a bit of a shame really because musically there was a great deal to like.  Jane Archibald was a gorgeous and scintillating Semele with perfect Handelian technique, clear diction and beautiful tone backed up by top notch acting skills.  Allyson McHardy (Ino/Juno) was equally fine with a very pleasing dark mezzo that combined especially well with Archibald.  The stand out among the men was Steven Humes (Cadmus/Somnus) who was loud, clear and accurate.  I wasn’t so sure about the other men.  Anthony Roth-Costanza’s Athamas was accurate enough but I’m never going to fall in love with his rather reedy counter-tenor.  It also had a quality in the middle voice that sounded like he was fighting a New Jersey accent.  William Burden’s Jupiter was ardent but he didn’t really seem at home in the music.  There was a sort of Italianate scooping attack to many of his phrases that just didn’t sound like Handel and his ornamentation seemed a bit of an after thought.  Katherine Whyte’s Iris was a bit of an enigma too.  She had clearly been directed to ham things up and maybe that was what was affecting her top notes because at times they seemed in danger of getting away from her.  The musical direction from Rinaldo Alessandrini was crisp and sympathetic.  The orchestra and continuo players worked well with the singers and everything was audible even when sung from well up stage as “O Sleep why dost thou leave me” was.  The chorus was its usual excellent self.

I hope the negative reaction to this production doesn’t deter the COC from using directors who have ideas.  In my opinion we absolutely need productions that reexamine the material being presented and make us think about it anew but that sort of deconstruction/reconstruction needs to start from a deep understanding of, and sympathy with, the text and, above all, the music.  I fear Zhang Huan has neither.  That said, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to see what the Ensemble Studio can make of it.

The production runs until May 26th.  Judging by the number of empty seats last night tickets shouldn’t be too hard to come by.  The Ensemble Studio performance is on May 23rd.


All photo credits Michael Cooper.


5 thoughts on “Deconstructing Semele

  1. Honestly, it sounds like a nightmare. Stick to the DVD with Bartoli and Workman, which is pretty good after the first act and at least tells the story in a straightforward way. Not. as you say, that there is anything wrong with re-examining the original, but it’s got to add to the experience, not detract and irritate.

    • I wouldn’t go as far as “nightmare”. Still less “a National Disgrace” which is how the critic in the National Post described it. I am puzzled as to why COC decided to take it on though. Someone must have thought it worked.

  2. Excessively negative! Yes the sumo wrestlers were dumb and the “orgy” was the dumbest. However, after being transported to a rarefied place by the beauty of a Handel love song, the arrival of the donkey burdened with a giant ding-dong was an unexpected and funny reminder of another reality of love. Jane Archibald, although a mortal, played like a goddess – her voice, acting and graceful body was the epitome of feminine beauty. She alone was worth it. The Somnus scene – stunning. The sets were very good; some great. The director’s ego got the better of him in a few places, but it worked in most places and was pure beauty and entertainment in a few places.

  3. Pingback: Staging Handel’s oratorios | operaramblings

  4. Pingback: COC’s Semele is Brooklyn bound | operaramblings

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