Handel and Zhang: great minds thinking alike

I’m writing about two men who made some odd choices, showing a parallel brilliance even though separated by centuries.

George Frederic Handel was simply trying to make a living, a composer whose works were sometimes welcomed, sometimes not.  Semele, with its story of marital infidelity and amorous gods with a libretto from William Congreve was originally presented as an oratorio during the Lenten season in London in 1744: when such matters were indecorous.  While the work was written in English (and is for all intents and purposes an opera, given the flamboyance of the material, notwithstanding its initial presentation as “oratorio”) it seems to have been a victim of the same change of fashion that saw Handel’s Italian operas falling from public view for roughly two centuries.  Yes Handel’s operas are being produced nowadays, Semele included…

Flash forward to the 21st century, as explained in this quote from a NY Times review that could serve as an explanatory preamble to what we’re to see when the Canadian Opera revives a production previously seen in Belgium and China:

This “Semele” is the upshot of an unusual co-production between La Monnaie and — in lieu of another opera house — the fledgling KT Wong Foundation, whose mission is to stimulate Chinese-Western cultural interaction. In the foundation’s most ambitious project to date, its chairwoman, Linda Wong Davies, conceived the idea of uniting Western Baroque opera and Chinese stagecraft, then proceeded to act as matchmaker by bringing together a major European opera company and an innovative Chinese artist.


Artist Zhang Huan

The innovative artist is Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan.  The result is a curious inter-cultural response to Handel’s work.  Zhang’s production is in a very real sense

  • An installation as much as a production
  • A site-specific production (normally impossible in an opera house).
  • A definite parallel to what Handel himself did originally (in premiering his opera as a Lenten oratorio)
Zhang's temple

Zhang's temple in the 2009 La Monnaie production of Handel's Semele (photograph Karl Forster)

We’re told that Zhang has found a 450 year-old Buddhist temple, that was concealed inside a house, a house with a relevant back-story.  The house was owned by a couple with their own tale of infidelity.  The husband discovered his wife was cheating, killed the lover, and was subsequently executed.  The wife, who still lives, comes to the theatre where that temple is reconstructed, herself a kind of ghost who lives on, while the two men who longed for her do not.  She is a curious mirror image to Semele herself (in case you don’t recall the story, Semele was Jupiter’s lover, who is incited by the jealous wife Juno to ask to see the great god in all his glory, when he had promised to grant any wish: which of course mortal Semele could not survive), being the one mortal survivor, where in the ancient tale only the object of desire perishes.

It’s a brilliant story and the sort of metaphor that installations employ.  Pierre Louys put out the Chansons de Bilitis originally on the premise that they were genuine ancient artefacts, a piece of gloss that changed the way we read those songs; they were of course his original creation.  George Faludy made his reputation in Budapest for his translations of songs by François Villon: again a bogus historicity that served mostly to make Faludy (my favourite Hungarian poet) famous.

And so, we have the story of a temple concealed within a house.  What a beautiful image, when you think of it.  And whether the “temple” we see before us is truly 450 years old or not, the stage for Semele becomes a kind of historic site of infidelity, and also a temple to desire.  That it is a Buddhist temple is somewhat ironic, considering that the usual Buddhist goal is to transcend desire rather than celebrate it (for further study next season, come see the COC production of Tristan und Isolde, to see whether Wagner under the influence of Schopenhauer genuinely seems to overcome or celebrate desire).

I think I am going to love this.  It’s being assistant directed by Allison Grant, who recently directed the Roméo et Juliette at Vancouver Opera.  The NY Times review of the original version from La Monnaie calls attention to a few things Zhang did, that may or may not survive in the Toronto production:

The joyful conclusion of Act I is undone when followed by an unaccompanied Mongolian song. More damaging is Mr. Zhang’s decision to end the opera prematurely with Semele’s death; thereafter, in a kind of funeral procession, men of the chorus hum — of all things — the Communist anthem “International.” Instead of leaving the theater elated by Handel’s final chorus, one goes away perplexed.

But I WANT to be perplexed.  I love that sensation, and what’s more, I recall reading somewhere that Zhang likes that experience too.  Being lost is something I adore.  I wrote a paper about it long ago, and I think it’s something very spiritual.  We live in a culture where people are never lost, always knowing where we are with our GPS’s, our mobile phones, a web of technology all around us.

I believe Zhang did his homework.  The oxymoronic quality of the Buddhist temple of desire matches Handel’s amatory opera during Lent perfectly.  While Handel’s choice (putting this sizzling story on during Lent) may have been ill-advised, Zhang’s choice seems apt.

Okay, so you can probably tell I am going to love this production, with its puppet dragon, sumo wrestlers, (hopefully including the Mongolian song and the Internationale as well) and the temple, whether or not it really is 450 years old.

And as David Feheley, COC’s Technical Directory explained, Semele will be a technical tour de force from the COC backstage staff.  Neither of the previous incarnations of this Semele were staged in rep, which is to say, requiring the temple to be assembled and then taken down for the other operas (Tales of Hoffmann and the Zemlinsky/Puccini double bill reviewed earlier this week).

The temple weighs 17 tons.  Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much when placed alongside such behemoths as Lepage’s 45 ton set for the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  But large as that set is, it was built all along as a set, to be assembled and taken down.  Zhang’s temple –real or otherwise—has none of the usual characteristics of a set.  It’s not a synecdoche or incomplete image of something.  It is complete.  It’s not made from materials designed for use on a stage.  It looks real.

This temple has been assembled and won’t come apart because it’s on a solid wheeled platform that can slowly be removed for one of the other shows.  Lighting is built right into this unit.


Soprano Jane Archibald

As if that weren’t enough to attract an audience, the COC have assembled a wonderful cast, headed by soprano Jane Archibald in the title role, she of the Juno award winning CD of Haydn arias, and the wonderful coloratura voice we encountered last season as Zerbinetta.  Her rival –for Jovian love if not for vocal honours—is Allyson McHardy, so passionate as Dejanira in Hercules with Tafelmusik just a few weeks ago.

Allyson Mchardy

Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy

When I jokingly alluded to the stories of divas upstaging one another, McHardy & Archibald mugged outrageously for me, clearly a pair who enjoy one another’s company and are having fun in this production.

The icing on the cake of their happy collaboration is supplied by the conductor, baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini, who brings an authenticity to Semele (at least by reputation) comparable to what Harry Bicket brought here with his Orfeo ed Euridice a couple of years ago.  Here’s an example where you can see what a wonderful conductor Alessandrini is.   While the pronunciation is perhaps not ideal watch how he follows the young singer…AND notice the wonderful tempo in the middle –scourging—section .

The Canadian Opera Company production of Semele opens May 9th at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. I’m looking forward to it, a wonderful update on the little bit of Semele i encountered when i was young; here’s the one really famous piece of music from this opera in a famous old version.

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2 Responses to Handel and Zhang: great minds thinking alike

  1. Pingback: Jane Archibald as Semele | barczablog

  2. Pingback: “Семела” | khvostik

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