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Jane Archibald as Semele in the Canadian Opera Company production of "Semele"

Chris Hutcheson

Semele

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Thursday

Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan says he knows nothing about opera, yet he has some good ideas about Handel's Semele. They are written down in his director's notes for the COC's rented Asian-themed production. But what a director says or writes matters less than what he shows on stage. By that test, I agree that Huan doesn't know much about opera.

Semele is a classical tragedy about reaching too high. The title character has an affair with Jupiter, wants to become immortal, and is destroyed by what the god calls this "dangerous ambition." If you're looking for Asian parallels, as Huan was asked to do by a wealthy patron in 2009, the link with Confucian ideas of knowing one's place seems clear. But Huan presents Semele mainly as a sex comedy with Buddhist overtones.

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In Buddhism, desire belongs to the animal realm, so Huan puts a dancing panto donkey on the stage, complete with a metre-long erection. Semele's human suitor Athamas (sung by the accurate but reedy countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) cuddled this ass's bum while singing his hopeful air in Act I. When Jupiter met with Semele in Act II, with the excellent COC chorus in attendance, the rule for performers seemed to be: If you're not singing, pretend to have sex. All this rutting took place in a real Ming dynasty temple that was turned into a grain office during the Cultural Revolution.

Most characters were portrayed to some degree as clowns, Athamas most of all. Jupiter (William Burden, a robust tenor fond of sobbing articulations) acted like Peter Frampton meeting a groupie. Juno (mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, whose gutsy singing took full measure of the goddess's wrath) careened about like a crazed slapstick queen.

Soprano Katherine Whyte had some fine moments vocally, while doing a wacky turn as Juno's helpmate, Iris. Ino (McHardy again) was undercut by the foppish antics of her love-object Athamas.

Huan cut down Semele by eliminating her beautiful Act I aria, The morning lark to mine accords his note. That's right: The COC hired Canadian Jane Archibald, possibly the best coloratura soprano of her generation, then took away the famous number that establishes Semele as a character. Archibald was left with only a few minutes of singing in Act I, with half of those spent (during Endless pleasure, endless love) gliding high above the stage on a wire.

Archibald took over the show in the later scenes. Her slow airs were gorgeous, though in O sleep, why dost thou leave me, she was set too far back to compete with an overly strong cello. Her coloratura turns were thrillingly bright and fiery. She was helped during her final regretful air by one of Huan's better staging ideas: a great ashy dragon that wrapped itself around her.

Bass Steven Humes gave Cadmus an apt sense of gravitas, while displaying the show's best Handelian diction. He excelled also as Somnus, who appeared in a sleeping bag on the roof.

Tibetan singer Amchok Gompo Dhondup closed Act I with a solo turn I would have been happy to hear anywhere else, sumo wrestlers grappled at the end of Act II, and the show ended with a hummed version of the Internationale, in place of Handel's final scene.

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The COC Orchestra under Rinaldo Alessandrini sounded stodgy in Act I, with too much deadly unphrased plodding in the bass. Playing improved later, becoming grand and expressive in the final dramatic scenes, during which Handel demolished any notion that this opera could be a sex farce.

Han Feng's hectic costuming referenced five centuries of style on two continents, without much aiding the story. Wolfgang Gobbel's lighting (recreated by Willem Laarman) gave the temple an evocative glow, though didn't offer anything special for Semele's fiery demise.

The temple was very imposing, though freighted with associations (including its fate during the Cultural Revolution) that this show couldn't handle. A real-life anecdote about a jealous murder committed by one of the temple's recent owners was mentioned in a prefatory film, but played no part in the production proper. Like many of Huan's ideas about Semele, it didn't really connect with the opera Handel wrote.

Semele continues through May 26.

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