Canadian Opera Company Closes Season With SEMELE, Now thru May 26
The Canadian Opera Company's 2011/2012 season closes with the company premiere of George Frideric Handel's Semele in a production directed by famed Chinese visual and performance artist Zhang Huan. Joining Mr. Zhang to present Handel's sparkling and seductive opera about the pitfalls of love affairs between gods and mortals is Italian Baroque opera specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini, who leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Sung in English with English SURTITLES™, Semele runs for eight performances at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts tonight, May 9 and May 11, 13, 16, 19, 22, 24 and 26, 2012.
The COC's presentation of Semele is the first opportunity for audiences to experience Zhang's production of Semele outside Brussels, Belgium, where it premiered in 2009, and Beijing in 2010, where it was China's first major staging of a Baroque opera. Zhang made his directorial debut with Semele, conceiving a work that blends a Baroque aesthetic with the splendour of China.
Zhang's Semele takes the world of classical music and presents it through the lens of a contemporary Chinese artist, drawing on parallels between Greco-Roman mythology and Chinese legends, as well as Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation, to create a true interaction of Eastern and Western cultures. He weaves together many elements of Chinese culture, incorporating dazzling and innovative visual effects involving mirrors, puppetry, a Chinese dragon and artists who sing while moving suspended through air. Zhang also incorporates traditions reflective of Japanese and Tibetan cultures through the inclusion of sumo wrestlers and a traditional Tibetan singer. The production's centerpiece is a 450-year-old Ming Dynasty ancestral temple salvaged by Zhang from a small town in China. The temple's own history, with an adulterous story that eerily parallels Semele's plot, makes its way into the production in the form of a black-and-white documentary projected during the overture (see attached backgrounder).
Han Feng, sought-after for her fashion as well as costume and exhibition designs, plays with Zhang's concept to create a fusion of Chinese theatre and European Baroque in the costumes enhanced by the magical lighting design originally conceived by Wolfgang Göbbel.
Rinaldo Alessandrini, founder and conductor of the Italian early music ensemble Concerto Italiano, makes his COC debut conducting Semele, the first Handel opera performed at the Four Seasons Centre. He leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus through a score that showcases Handel at his most expressive and inventive with sparkling music that evokes both a sensual tone and vividly dramatic sound.
In the opera, a love affair between the god Jupiter and the princess Semele goes horribly awry when Semele sets her mind to become immortal. Canadian coloratura soprano Jane Archibald, who dazzled audiences and critics with her vocal dexterity and dramatic presence in the COC's Ariadne auf Naxos last spring, returns to sing the flighty and narcissistic, but innocently naïve, Semele. American tenor William Burden, highly praised for a wide-ranging repertoire showcased at the major opera houses of Europe and North America, makes his COC debut as Jupiter. Cast as both Jupiter's jealous wife, Juno, and Semele's sister, Ino, is Canadian mezzo-soprano and COC Ensemble Studio graduate Allyson McHardy. Last with the COC in 2009's Madama Butterfly, McHardy returns to the company on the heels of acclaimed debut performances with Opéra national de Paris, Opéra Comique in Paris and Château de Versailles and Pacific Opera Victoria.
Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte, last with the COC as Iphigenia in 2011's Iphigenia in Tauris, returns to sing the role of Juno's messenger, Iris. American bass Steven Humes makes his COC debut portraying Semele's father, Cadmus, and the god of sleep, Somnus; and young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, a 2009 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his COC debut as Semele's jilted suitor, Athamas.
Handel's Semele offended many at its premiere in 1744. It was shocking in both its subject matter and style. While Handel had great success composing Italian operas for the London stage for much of his career, by 1738 public taste began to change and he made writing and producing oratorios the main business of his career. In composing Semele, however, the work took shape as an opera. When it was performed in London, pious oratorio purists who expected a high-minded religious work were insulted by Semele's sexuality and opera aficionados were put off because it was in English rather than the then-accepted proper language of opera – Italian. Cast aside after its initial performance, Semele experienced a renewed enthusiasm in the mid-20th century that has not since diminished.
The COC's Semele is a co-production of Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels and KT Wong Foundation.
Single tickets for Semele are $12 – $318 (includes applicable taxes). Tickets are available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Box Office, located at 145 Queen St. W., Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.