Cellphone Semele

The recent recording of New Zealand Opera’s production of Handel’s Semele is unusual in several ways.  First, the basis of the film is a performance in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland which leads to rather disturbing (depending on your taste I suppose) juxtapositions such as Jupiter and Semele on a bed in front of the High Altar making out like rabid weasels.  The setting also makes it very hard to film because the audience is sitting in the pews and the action happens in various places in and around the audience which makes it nigh impossible for the film director to show us what the live audience saw.


So instead, video director Rebecca Tansley has decided to give us a film that’s based on the stage action but also includes some footage shot outside the cathedral as well as a lot of shots that look they were filmed on a cellphone.  In fact cellphones are ubiquitous here.  Characters communicate on them and all the time there are people snapping pictures, filming,. looking at selfies etc.  From this you would rightly conclude that we are not in ancient Thebes. In fact we open on a very posh society wedding; Semele and Athamas of course, set in the cathedral with the priests in full canonicals and the chorus in choir robes.  When Semele gets cold feet about her impending nuptials Jupiter whisks her off on the back of his motorbike.


Much of the rest is staged more or less conventionally, by Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Jacqueline Coats, until we reprise the wedding but this time with Ino wearing the forty foot bridal veil/train.  The detailed direction and production concept has some nice touches.  Semele’s retreat (wherever it is) seems to be hosting a non-stop drink and drug fuelled orgy; possibly with paparazzi.  Some bits too get the cellphone touch.  “Endless pleasure” looks like a cellphone recording of a pop concert.  Juno and Iris phone each other from galleries high up in the church.  During “Myself I shall adore” Semele is taking multiple selfies.  And so on.  I want to be fair here.  I’m quite sure a more conventional approach to filming would not have worked but I did find what we get here quite distracting to the point of irritation.


I wish I liked the production/film more because musically it’s really quite good.  Emma Pearson is an excellent Semele with a good sense of style, excellent coloratura and a willingness to ornament.  She’s also a great mover.  Samoan tenor Amitai Pati is also excellent as Jupiter.  He has a strong, rather beautiful tenor and is also a good actor (also awesome tattoos).  “Where’er you walk” is lovely.  Sarah Castle as Ino and Juno convincingly creates a quite different persona for each and Paul Whelan sings powerfully and looks the part(s) as Cadmus and Somnus.  Chelsea Dolman is a perfectly acceptable Iris and if counter tenor Stephen Diaz is at the reedy end of the counter-tenor spectrum it doesn’t detract as Athamas who is portrayed as a bit of a weed here anyway.  The band is the New Zealand Opera Baroque Orchestra on period instruments.  They sound very good.  Peter Walls conducts.  Considering he and the band are behind the action he keeps things together very well indeed.


Sound and video quality on Blu-ray are pretty good except where the film director has deliberately chosen to make it look like a surreptitious phone video.  That said, there are a lot of dark scenes and even on Blu-ray these tend to get a bit muddy.  The disk contains a cast gallery but the booklet is the most vestigial I’ve seen on a recent mainstream release.  There’s no synopsis, no directors’ notes and even the track listing is just”Act 1, Scene 1″ etc with no indication of where the musical numbers come.  Subtitle options are English, German, Japanese and Korean.


This disk faces pretty strong competition from Robert Carsen’s Zürich production.  Carsen’s is a good production, as you might expect, and it works much better on film.  On top of that Pearson and Pati, good though they are, aren’t quite in the same class vocally as Bartoli and Workman ; though admittedly they definitely win the eye candy stakes.


Catalogue number: Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7309D


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