Review: Semele (Canadian Opera Company)

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Semele by George Frideric Handel contained a number of surprises, including a black and white documentary film clip, sumo wrestlers and an exceptionally well-endowed donkey. Artistic director Zhang Huan seems to relish taking risks with this Baroque canon staple.

The production was loosely set in China. During the overture a clip from a documentary about the efforts of a Chinese family to repurpose a crumbling temple was projected. This temple was the inspiration for the set that dominated the production. The set was beautiful however any connection between the story of the Chinese family and the Greek myth on which Semele is based was lost on my companion and I.

I greatly enjoyed the orchestra’s interpretation of the overture. The opening attack was decisive and did a wonderful job of establishing the mood for this classic moral tragedy.

Jane Archibald was magnificent in the title role. The brilliance and silvery shimmer of her tone was ideal for the characterization of the fatally flawed, vain heroine. Her prodigious agility and freedom on high pitches is enviable. My companion was likewise heartily impressed with her singing.

I also enjoyed Allyson McHardy in the role of Ino/Juno. Her dark and creamy tone was well suited to the dolorous and vengeful character she portrayed. Her duet with Ms. Archibald was stunning because of the stark contrast in their timbres.

I admire the spirit of risk taking inherent in Zhang’s directing. That being said, some of his risks were difficult to interpret. Some choices were highly effective, most notably the use of floor to ceiling, stage left to stage right, paneled mirror during Semele’s performance of third act aria “Myself shall I adore”. The mirror reflected not only Semele but the conductor, orchestra and audience. This choice made a great deal of sense and was used to great dramatic effect.

On two occasions, Zhang made the decision to use music that was not part of Handel’s score. The first instance was at the end of act I. Singer Amchok Gompo Dhondup entered from the back of the auditorium while singing traditional Tibetan music. The effect of his vibrant, powerful, raw vocals was captivating and provided a very distinct contrast to Handel’s music. They symbolism of this choice was not clear to me or my companion. The performer is not a character in the opera and the connection to the story was not apparent.

The second instance was right at the end. The opera closed out with the chorus, clad as Chinese monks, chanting. The chorus that usually concludes this opera was omitted. According to the program, the decision to alter the end of the opera was in keeping with the Buddhist ideals of the impermanence of all things. Suffice it to say, the use of music which is not part of the original score, while omitting music that is, is highly unusual in an opera.

There was a great deal of hype about the use of sumo wrestlers in this production. The fighters appeared during the chorus at the end of Act II. While the use of the wrestlers was certainly humourous and their agility and athleticism was impressive, the connection to the story and this particular chorus number seemed arbitrary. We were also puzzled by the fact that while the opera was ostensibly set in China, sumo wrestlers are Japanese.

The motives behind many of the creative choices were not clear to me. It works well if one is able to shut off the part of the brain that seeks meaning and just go with it. All I will say about the donkey is that it provided excellent comic relief, massive phallus and all.

The COC Ensemble studio will be performing in this production on May 23. The ensemble studio is COC’s training program for young opera professionals.

– Semele is playing at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen St. W.) until May 26, 2012.

– Performance dates and times are:

  • Wed. May 9, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Fri. May 11, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun. May 13, 2012 at 2 p.m.
  • Wed. May 16, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat. May 19, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Tues. May 22, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Thurs. May 24, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat. May 26, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.

– Ticket prices range from $45 – $318. Patrons under 30 years of age can purchase tickets for $22. Standing room and rush tickets go on sale at 11:00 am on the day of the performance. Standing room tickets are $12.00, rush tickets are $22.00
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231

Photo of Jane Archibald and William Burden by Michael Cooper