Thursday, March 5, 2015

This is not a review: Semele at BAM

What is to be done with an opera that has beautiful music and an atrocious libretto, most arias consisting of the same convoluted line repeated over and over?? Involving a complicated plot about humans and Olympian gods, that nobody in their right mind should care about? Is is possible to produce such an opera in a way that would allow a modern audience relate to it without resorting to a contemporary production which can get pretty annoying when people are singing 17th century music in US military gear, for example? (Yes, this is a long, convoluted sentence, because it's a blog, and it's not a review nor an opera)
In the Canadian Opera production of Semele, the curtain opens, - that dramatic moment every every opera lover relishes, to reveal a blank wall right behind, hitting us as if we had run into a concrete wall. Wait. It's not a wall, it's a screen. Projection of a short documentary about a 12th century temple in a small town in China, while orchestra plays overture. The temple was used to store grain during the Cultural Revolution. Later a couple lived there, but the husband killed his wife's lover, and was executed by a firing squad. The woman sells the temple to unknown entity to increase the chances of her son in finding a wife. Shot of temple in warehouse. The overture ends, the screen rises and the actual temple is on stage, under our very eyes,  all 17 tons of it, exactly in the place and dimension it was projected on the screen. One of the many dramatic, operatic moments imagined by designer artist director Zhang Huan.

I will not reveal every trick out of Huan's hat, but can't resist sharing the last one. After the opera has come to a close, a procession of Buddhist monks hum the communist hymn, l'Internationale, carrying the burnt corpse of Semele who died from looking at Jove/Zeus. The musical score to one of the 20th century disappeared gods: communism. Humans meet Gods, East meets West. Way out of the box inventive, dramatic, musical. Good ensemble singing, good orchestra, great score. Conductor Christopher Moulds, with his dramatic sense of timing, gets the everything out of the singers. Jane Archibald, soprano colatura, sings her guts out.

My suggestion for the next production of Semele or similar work is to completely rewrite the plot and lines, just keep the music. And forget English as a language for opera unless it's 20th/21st century, no offence meant. I don't think it can get better than this production with the existing Semele in lacklustre English verse. 

Nay only to the Sumo wrestlers: too cute. 

I didn't know Hilary could be a man's name.

Almost forgot: it's really funny too. There is sex on stage. Also a horse in pajama with a huge penis.

Too far out for Canadians, just right for New York?  The audience loved it.

I hope I'm not starting to sound like a reviewer, this divinely appointed opinion maker?

Published by  - -  Arabella Hutter