I had another chance to see & hear and even smell Zhang Huan’s production of Semele at the Canadian Opera Company.
Yes, Semele also smells good (and I’m not just saying that to make a feeble joke). Before the curtain went up, I noticed that the air in Four Seasons Centre was distinctly different. I am sure the singers noticed the extra oxygen produced by the living verdure. It took me back to something Pina Bausch brought to Toronto back in the 1980s (sorry I can’t recall the title but do remember the visceral sensation: which came back to me tonight), where the entire stage was covered in greenery, and the whole theatre smelled wonderfully alive. Ditto tonight, especially for those of us in the first few rows.
I didn’t notice it the first time I saw this production because I was seated further back and distracted. As you may have heard, there’s a great deal going on in Zhang’s Semele, even though a lot of what composer Handel and librettist Congreve might have written is missing. If that’s your deal-breaker –that is, you somehow show up expecting , nay demanding to see x, y and z, and the COC failed to deliver—I have no sympathy. While Zhang’s Semele is not to be mistaken for a traditional production, it is the wisest and deepest production that I saw from the COC all season.
That the audience –led by the sadly negative Toronto press—failed to embrace this production shouldn’t be surprising even if it really bothers me. Toronto audiences have previously taken a few oddities to heart per season, although maybe this one is a tougher sell.
I am perplexed by audience dynamics these days. I sat in the Lincoln Centre audience for two of the four Ring operas directed by Robert Lepage & his Ex Machina team. Not only was I entranced (as I had been for the High Definition broadcasts), but in person the magic was considerably greater, with a carnivalesque quality that simply can’t be captured for a broadcast. The negative buzz in social media killed it for many in the audience, even though most of us went nuts at the end of each show. I was quoted in Macleans possibly because everyone else is lining up to kick Lepage in the butt while I am still as innocent as a little child in the presence of his Ring.
It was the same with Semele. It’s full of hijinks and silliness, yet even so has many serious moments; and unfortunately people sometimes hesitate to embrace something when they’re unsure of themselves. This is truly an intercultural opera production (Tibetan singer, Sumo wrestlers, costumes reminiscent of many places & peoples) , but why shouldn’t it be when the opera (oratorio actually) is itself so intercultural? Semele comes from a Greek myth adapted into a libretto by an Englishman, with music by an expat German. (we needn’t address Handel’s Italian influences). Speaking of odours, I think it stinks to act like a purist, turning one’s nose up at an eclectic treatment of this work.
I want to briefly address a couple of things I didn’t cover concerning on my earlier night.
The ending strips off the joyous chorus & the consolation offered in the plot’s denouement (Bacchus reported born from Semele’s ashes), ending on a sadder note, followed by an unaccompanied chorus humming the Internationale. Finally we see again the figures associated with the temple that is more like an installation than a set, the reminder of the impermanence of life to mirror the outcome of the opera. Why the Internationale? It makes sense to me both as a reflection of this production’s cross-cultural ambitions (recalling that it was funded first in Europe, then taken to China, and now comes to Canada), an anthem to the unity of people everywhere. That the COC plays the final chorus on the PA system after the sombre ending allowed us to have our cake & eat it too. Zhang’s version reminded me of the original Prague version of Don Giovanni, before the epilogue was added. Perhaps at this one moment Zhang felt we’d had enough comedy, although I don’t begrudge the powers that be for adding a little something to juice up the lobby.
While my review of the earlier performance did properly genuflect in the direction of the two fabulous leads, the women who carry this Semele, namely Jane Archibald in the title role (to whom I had the extra thrill of hollering a “thank you” out of my car window a dozen blocks away from the theatre… she flashed a smile in return, sigh blush) and Allyson McHardy as her gleeful nemesis Juno in two stunning portrayals full of wit, energy and glorious singing (whoops, three counting her alter-ago Ino), I didn’t properly acknowledge the rest of the cast, whom I simply waved at by calling it the strongest cast from the COC all year.
Steven Humes sang the dual roles of Cadmus and Somnus, the deepest voice I’ve yet heard in this theatre; I believe Humes hit a B below the low C in his sleepy aria as Somnus (wow). Humes presence was wonderfully strong as Cadmus, whereas he was an entirely different figure as the sleepy god.
Anthony Ross Constanzo was a strong Athamas, seizing the comic opportunities in his big first scene and thereby setting the tone for much of what was to follow.
I was quite delighted by William Burden’s Jupiter, sung with a gentle lilting voice that seemed wonderfully apt precisely because it was not the usual operatic sound, but instead a light and agile sound perfect for oratorio. Burden had a wonderfully deft touch for coloratura. Of all the various aspects of Zhang’s production Jupiter is perhaps the most realistic of all, and in the opportunities given, Burden never failed to resemble someone magical.
Katherine Whyte sang a sparkling Iris, bouncing around Allyson McHardy’s Juno, bravely helping her in so many comical moments that alas didn’t get more than a couple of us laughing (although I guffawed in a few places).
Sigh, the COC season’s almost over. Friday night is the last of the Zemlinsky/Puccini double bill, then Saturday means one final Semele, all at the Four Seasons Centre.