Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Semele: Still awesome after all these years!

Following the Olympic coverage last night I settled in for the insomniac special: a performance of the David McVicar/Marc Minkowski production of Semele at the Theatre de Theatre des Champs-Elysees. In a word: wow. Deciding to move the story out of antiquity, but not wanting to drop it into the 20th century, McVicar wisely shifts the action to the time of Handel, having it play out on a curved, nearly bare, two tiered stage (with portal windows at the highest level and a sliding panel center stage for entrances and exits) in what appears to be the rotunda of some grand palace, the cast attired in mid 18th century costumes. The only props and set alterations are dozens of white chairs in the first act and an enormous bed for scenes in Acts two and three (though there is a nice deux a machina near the evening’s end). Often, as in the scenes between Iris and Juno, the stage is entirely bare, the floor lit up with tiny lights that appear as stars with the goddess sisters seemingly wandering through the heavens – quite breathtaking. After so many “razzle dazzle” and “in your face” productions, the director’s favoring of simplicity is nearly as revelatory as it is refreshing.

Such a sparseness of setting, of course, places an enormous responsibility of selling the story, on the shoulder’s of the singers. Minkowski’ cast provided some magic there, as well. Initially, I found Annick Massis’s take on the title role a bit too removed and distant, but I noticed something – and clearly it was McVicar’s intent to have her begun thus, and slowly warm up, becoming more open and erotic as the story progresses. In this light, Massis’ Semele becomes an entirely different creature than the oft-portrayed vapid princess that stops the show with a half dozen of Handel’s greatest arias. This was a complex, moving performance that, by Semele’s demise, was a complete journey through a brief, complex life. Vocally, Massis fairly sails through the role, though she is stripped of a couple of arias (including the great “Endless Pleasure,) given here to the nearly ever present, mostly silent character “Cupido.” McVicar’s staging pays homage to the old operatic tradition of bringing down the curtain for certain arias to be sung at the footlights, and we first experience this with Semele’s touching “The morning lark.” While there is no ballet, the director does ask his singers (including the remarkable chorus here) to be in near perpetual movement lending an almost, and not unwelcome, balletic feel to most of the proceedings. The coloratura flights Massis takes during “Myself I shall adore” are almost comically fast and intricate, but she pulls them off earning a huge applause.

Richard Croft has been singing Jupiter for close to 20 years – and, in my opinion, no one sings it better than he. His opening aria doesn’t make quite the impression I was hoping for, but catches fire before the end. Croft dispatches the fiery coloratura in “I must with speed amuse her!” with an almost breathless quality that defies all speed limits – missing not one of the insanely fast notes . . . and puffs on a live cigarette between verses. It’s just crazy! No matter the tempo or dynamic, every syllable uttered is understood, clean and clear, without once becoming fussy. The attention to detail in his recitative work is actorly and equally remarkable, with lüftpauses creating silences that hauntingly point up Congreve's beautiful text.

As good as he is in all of the showiness of Jupiter, his finest moment comes in the opera’s most celebrated air “Where ‘er you walk.” I first heard Croft in this role around 1994. At the conclusion of this aria, my opera-savvy friend, (hearing Croft for the first time), leaned into me and whispered “that was the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard.” He may not possess exactly the same dewy youthful freshness as he did 14 or 15 seasons ago – but most of it is still there, and with an added depth of character and style. As one French critic noted in this aria Croft is “distilling each note with wonder: within his voice seem to appear the zephyrs, and the wind of which he sings.” O, ‘tis true, ‘tis true, friends.. When he finishes the “B” section on “where ‘er you turn your eyes” – he does so on the most exquisitely shaded pianissimo, gently heralding the da capo, which he renders in the purest mezzo voce imaginable . . . almost whispered. As he sings, Jupiter raises an arm, to invoke a gentle shower of petals which rains down upon the innocent Semele, now looking on in wide-eyed wonder. It is a scene of absolute magic – the type of gentle singing and pastoral action that can take your breath away. It did mine.

As Ino, Charlotte Hellekant very nearly steals the show. Even attired in gray, and as the dejected, “old maid” – her runway model looks come through. Like everyone else in this cast, she is unafraid to modify her voice, to sing, at times, in almost vocal whispers, carefully shading the text and pouring every one of Ino’s outsized emotions into a sound of heartbreaking beauty. Following an exquisite “But hark! the heav'nly sphere turns round, she and Semele attack “Prepare then, ye immortal choir!” with sustained, rhythmically free melissmas recalling the timelessness of renaissance music, their voices uniting beautifully.

The pairing of Sarah Connolly as Juno and Claron McFadden as Iris is tremendous fun. The goddess sisters elegantly move in their own little universe, stunningly lit. McFadden has such a pure, clear soprano with clarion high notes and Connolly, not so elegantly, blasts through her assignment with a quality that is best described as “fierce” and “accurate.” She’s having a grand time here and it shows, nowhere better than her blazing Iris, hence away!”

McVicar introduces the character of Cupido early on, and the diminutive (doll sized, really) coloratura Marion Harousseau appears in scarlet 18th century gentlemen’s dress, blind with dark glasses and an elaborate cane. She dances (literally) through the entire role and is always present in the scenes with Jupiter and Semele. It’s an interesting touch, though at times the persistent send up of cutesiness becomes cloying and ultimately distracting.

McVicar does add some new, well thought out and rather interesting (and amusing) touches. He has Cupido, smoking a large peace pipe, offer the smoke to the earthly sisters, causing, first Ino, then Semele to pass out – and making at least part of what ensues feel part of another realm – not quite dreamt, not quite real. In a brilliant touch , Semele listens to her sister, who is doubled now by Juno . . . Juno and Ino each lip-synching the other’s music from this point on – each on the opposite side of the mirror Semele will soon use in “Myself I shall adore.”

Minkowski leads a spirited, glorious and remarkably involved reading from the chorus and orchestra of the period ensemble “Les Musiciens du Louvre” that is comfortably dazzling. There are, however, several moments where the excitement of a breakneck tempo threatens to derail the proceedings, though nothing ever quite falls apart. Still, there is that not quite tangible feeling of watching a possible train wreck staying on course which can get an operalover’s blood pumping pretty wildly!

When so well thought out, so lovingly performed, Handel’s oratorio stands triumphant, as vibrant and entertaining as anything in the opera house.


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