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On Semele by George Frideric Handel, performed by Seattle Opera

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If the picture above reminds you of a view from the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, there’s a reason for that. Semele is based on a Greek myth about a young woman in love with Zeus, best known through the ages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Book Three (l.251 ff). It’s a great story that has received surprisingly little treatment over the centuries. Shakespeare didn’t use it, I don’t think. But what exactly is the best way to present an ancient myth in an opera from 1744 to a 21st century audience?

As science fiction, of course. Before the stage was lit, a giant screen was revealed, onto which were projected the pictures and names of the characters in the opera, along with the names of the players in somewhat smaller script. The font was that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film directed by Steven Spielberg. I think the Star Trek font would have established the Sci-Fi connection more strongly, but alas, alack, they didn’t consult me. After the Introit the screen went up, revealing a massive set of stairs that would look perfectly in place in front of either the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus or the Galactic Senate in Star Wars.

There soon appears two star crossed lovers, Athamas, who is engaged to Semele, and Ino, who is Semele’s sister. With Semele’s father, Cadmus, the quartet sings “Why Dost thou thus untimely grieve?”, it’s for one another. Nobody’s happy. Then comes the good news: Semele has been carried off by a giant eagle! Getting taken away by Zeus (sorry, Juppiter, or Jove) is usually a bad thing (see every other story in Ovid), but what else can you do with a problem like Semele? “Endless pleasure, endless love”, she sings, quite ecstatic with her new Deus ex Machina. In this version by Seattle Opera, it’s actually Deus ex Velovelum being the best I can think of for “screen” – as in the one pictured above. There are screens all over the place in this production (funding by Gates, et al.): giant ones, rather large ones, and the merely big ones, which ought to have made this audience feel right at home, very literally speaking.

Thus ended Act One. A word about the costumes … sticking to the plan, the dress was rather obviously science fictiony, without referring to any single show in particular. I’m tempted to say Star Trek, but then Athamas looked more like an escapee from the world of The Prisoner, Cadmus from Star Wars, and like the sex-oozing, would-be goddess from any movie in any decade, black and white, color, or even the old silents, Semele wore a nightgown, which will look much the same five hundred years from now, if they’re lucky. Jove and the rest of the gods are in somewhat less restrictive clothing, like those pagan heathens on distant planets in the original Star Trek series (Mudd, for example).

Act Two opens on Juno (wife of Jove, if you’ve forgotten), who has just learned about her husband’s latest tryst from the messenger goddess Iris, and is of course less than thrilled by the news. Iris has perhaps the best costume in the show, tailored up in a brown leather jumpsuit and a vaguely Spartan helmet, which I took for an allusion to the Flash Gordon (1936). Juno hatches a plan to disguise herself as Ino in order to visit the girl kept in her boudoir and then sings “Iris, hence away!” to get themselves both off the stage. Jupiter and Semele then open up the second scene, the latter obviously a bit tuckered out as she sings, “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?” Jupiter is unfazed, as he sings “Where’er you walk”, slowly, maybe a little like Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (which, like much of Semele, features a harpsichord). Juno disguised as Ino visits Semele and they close the Act with “Hark, the heavenly sphere”, eventually standing before the image of the planet in the picture above and the stars swirling around all of it. This was one amazing visual, one of the best I’ve seen at Seattle Opera, ever–it worked so perfectly with the music.

Act Three opens on Somnus, god of sleep, doing just that. He’s part of Juno’s plot to get rid of Semele—I don’t remember how exactly, but I certainly remember “More sweet is that name”, which he sings in praise of the nymph Pasithea. Pasithea herself prances and dances around stage, looking more like a member of Blue Man Group on the half-shell than a nymph, but charmingly so. I felt myself turning a little blue, actually (the sensuous in its elemental originality and all that). Juno-disguised-as-Ino makes her way into Semele’s private room and gives her a mirror, a very very special mirror that causes Semele to fall in love with herself (“Myself I shall adore”), in which state she is easily convinced that she deserves to see her lover for who he is — Jove himself. The ransom is perfectly predictable, and the titles of Semele’s next arias tell the story: “I am ever granting, you always complain” (Semele), “No, no, I’ll take no less” (Semele), and from there it goes on to end much as you’d expect it to end, which is to say badly for Semele, but mostly good for everyone else. Athamas and Ino are able to marry after all. Juno has offed yet one more rival (“Above measure is the pleasure”), while Jupiter is presumably off to find another. Apollo appears and announces that from the ashes of Semele, a new god shall be born—none other than Dionysus.

Which means there’s a lot more sex and violence to come.

Kudos to Seattle Opera for a job very well done. The sets and costumes were astonishingly fresh—an entirely original production that ought to travel well. The singers I heard were uniformly excellent: Mary Feminear as Semele, Theo Lebow as Jupiter, Deborah Nansteel as Juno (and Ino), and in a short but very impactful role, Amanda Forsythe as Iris.

Hopefully you’ll be able to see it all (the production, if not the cast) in a theater nearby.

Comments

  1. Broderick Barker says:

    TAGGED WITH: A LOT MORE SEX AND VIOLENCE TO COME

    Thanks for this, Quin. Remind me to use my untold riches to bring you to Dallas to review St. Rita.

  2. Quin Finnegan says:

    Thanks, BB. The Vergillian (I’m thinking of the bees) libretto for St Rita is perhaps my favorite piece of yours so far, and of course I’ll be at the premier, whether in Tokyo or Dallas or wherever.

  3. I see! I knew this day would come, but even I realize with some shock how late is the hour. The pornographic abortion which sent Mr. Finnegan into such paroxysms of ecstasy consists of nothing other than the obscene lies of heathen poets, set to the lewd tunes of a Hanoverian usurper’s lickspittle, and blasted onto a stultifying array of screens paid for by the ill-gotten lucre of monopolistic mechanicals.

    To frame the matter in terms that even the most moronic music-hall habitué might comprehend, Semele is a Black Mass of praise to the gods of Lunacy, Chaos, and Bad Taste: to the Unholy Trinity, with a capital “T” — and that rhymes with “P,” and that stands for Paganism, Protestantism, and Postmodernism.

    ZORRO

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