Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Night at the Opera

I have never seen a performance of Semele, so I was not quite sure what to expect. I have to say I was looking forward to the performance with a little trepidation. Anyone familiar with early baroque opera knows, they tend to be a bit static and while the music is beautiful, there isn't much scope for action. Singers take their mark and sing.

So you can imagine my delighted surprise when the curtain went up on Semele and on stage was a wedding party, in modern dress in a hotel function room. The chorus, (the wedding party) are all holding presents, in one chair a harried looking Cadmus is holding his head, in another an equally distraught Athamas is in a similar pose and curled up on one of the tables is an extremely sulky Semele!

Opera Boston stages all of it's productions at the Cutler Majestic, the theater owned by Emerson College. It is a lovely hall, beautifully renovated with marvelous acoustics and unimpaired sight lines. It also has a stage the size of a handkerchief! If one were going to be impressed with nothing else by Opera Boston, one would be impressed with the imaginative way that the company utilizes the limited stage. Once again, the stage design was perfect for the production. They managed to construct the tacky pseudo opulence of a hotel function room and by clever use of flats, throughout the production, continuously made subtle alterations to the set so that you were moved through the area.

The singers in modern dress were got up like a real wedding party, complete with ugly bridesmaids dresses and tacky groomsmans outfits. The outfits really looked like something one would see at a wedding, and yet did not go so completely over the top as to be distracting.

The orchestra and chorus were lovely. The Semele, Juno, Ino, Jupiter, Apollo, Athamas, and High Priest were all making their debut in this production and the only singer who seemed less than competent was the Athamas. Considering the quality of Opera Boston's productions in general and the rest of this cast in particular, I am willing to speculate that he was having a bad night. Counter Tenor is a difficult vocal range, but he did not seem up to the task. Fortunately, it is a small role and we spent most of our evening listening to some wonderful performances.

Semele was shallow, vain and silly, yet slightly dowdy. Her character was perfect for someone overreaching. Her interactions with Athamas were played with a perfect awkwardness and with Jupiter, just with the right amount of overenthusiasm.

Jupiter, portrayed as a high powered business type, was all you could want for a fatuous swain, both as seducer and neglectful lover proclaiming his undying love, while checking his cell phone for messages.

Ino as the unrequited lover was a wonderful, quivering mass of thwarted romantic intentions in an ugly bridesmaid dress.

Juno, in a power suit, with Iris as her personal assistant was indeed Junoesque. Her anger, as much injured pride as jealousy. All severe tailoring and privileged impatience.

Iris was played as Juno's personal assistant in an even more severe blue suit and RPD glasses. This made her aria where she describes Jupiter's precautions to safeguard his beloved Semele all the more sensual when she metaphorically lets her hair down as she delivers this song.

All in all, for me, it was a surprising performance and with the exception of Athamas, beautifully sung. The staging had just the right proportions of humor and downright camp without ever sinking into burlesque. The modern setting was used to great advantage, Somnus in Dr. Denton's, the use at one point when Jupiter carries off Semele, of a video camera, the growing dishabille of the chorus as the wedding party proceeds, Semele's overweening vanity, the little blue box that makes it's appearance as Jupiter tries to distract Semele from her quest for immortality, all wonderful metaphors for misplaced human ambition.

The denumount, with Juno tricking Semele, and her reunion with Jupiter leaves the audience with a tableau of Athamas, with the slightly stunned, grinning and gormless expression of the average groom and an equally stunned though not at all happy looking Semele, being united.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening and I was surprised that 3 hours of music went by so quickly. I still have Ernani to look forward to, so I'll get a little grand guignol in as well before the season is over.