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Seattle Opera is presenting a new production of Georg Frideric Handel's "Semele" for seven performances with two casts of principals. I saw both this past weekend. Tomer Zvulun directs, and set, costume, and lighting designers are Erhard Rom, Vita Tzykun (SO debut), and Robert Wierzel. Donald Byrd did choreography for six spirits in blue, one of whom, Tori Peil, also know for her work in Olivier Wevers' Whim W'him, doubled as a named character, Pasithea, who is used as bait by Juno to get Somnus to help her to break into the fortress castle that Jupiter created to hide Semele. I appreciated Byrd's choreography when the dancers were the gods' minions and during a sensuous pas de deux on the balcony, and less so when it was big dance movement not specifically tied to characterization.

According to conductor Gary Thor Wedow's program notes (paraphrase), after Italian opera went out of fashion in London and public tastes reverted to socially conservative forms of good-medicine entertainment, Handel adjusted to the times and wrote many oratorios, for which the public craved. "Semele," written in English, was something Handel tried to pretend was an oratorio, but the heroine, despite her demise, made the audience clutch its pearls, and it was revealed as an imposter.

The main set was lovely and versatile: a series of five or six deep stairs as wide as the stage in light-medium gray, with a balcony up a half staircase upstage left, and a small bench downstage left -- where much lamenting happened -- that were fixed, and a bed on a platform and altar were ported as needed. There was a long high sail-like drape used to indicate a canopy behind the bed, and several translucent white curtains that were moved in and out for different scenes. Lighting added warm golds for an entirely different atmosphere. If SO were a rep company, I could see the set being accessorized for a lot of different operas and re-used.

Dropped screens, scrims, and walls provided a canvas for the prodigious use of projections, including the opening credits and some static portraits -- or almost static: the portrait of Apollo blinked -- that were customized to the cast members, and others moving to create clouds, storms, landscapes, and a breathtaking view of the Earth from Semele's palace, upon which Semele and Ino gaze to end Act II. For Juno's scenes, a black leather chair on a low platform on wheels (as we come to find) downstage center was backed by a golden panel with vertical stripes flanked by curtains on either side, and this transitioned gracefully in and out of the main set.

The costumes for the chorus, the Thebans, looked a bit like conservative "Star Trek" clothes for visiting ambassadors. In Act I, Semele wore a white gown with black details on the bodice; once she was swept to the castle, she wore floaty silky nightgowns, with, occasionally, a maroon, sleeveless dressing gown. Costumes for the gods were all over the map: Jupiter, in mortal guise, was a combination of a Tamino-like handsome guy with a bit of Don Giovanni after he tossed his cape and jacket. Iris wore a military-style longish jacket over leggings with kneepads and sneakers with lights. Pasithea's blue leotard (like the rest of the dancers) had a big half shell, shaped like a fan of peacock feathers, but solid and golden. Athamas' tux was stylized with gray trim. Somnus wore blue polka dotted pajama bottoms and a deep aqua blue bathrobe and that extended with a giant blue cape with white lights -- it looked like about a third of the width of the stage -- under which the dancers moved the cape and occasionally escaped.

It's easy to make beautiful dresses for skinny people, but Vita Tzykun made dresses for Juno and Ina that were not only beautiful in themselves, but looked fantastic on Stephanie Blythe and Deborah Nansteel. Ino's dress featured a deep open coat with an inset in red and blue large geometric shards outlined in white. Jupiter's was in multi-layered blue and golds. I can't link to individual photos, but the photos on the SO site are terrific:


"Semele" has a cast of a Greek chorus plus six solo singers, with three doubled parts: Cadmus (King of Thebes, Semele's father) and Somnus (god of sleep), Ino (Semele's sister) and Juno, who impersonates Ino to trap Semele, and Jupiter and Apollo, who announces at the end that out of Semele's ashes Bacchus will arise. The Cadmus/Somnus, bass-baritone John del Carlo, whose recitatives were so clear the English supertitles weren't needed, sings in all performances, as does coloratura Amanda Forsythe as Iris, and countertenor Randall Scotting as Athamas (Semele's soon-to-be-ex-fiance and Ino's love). On Opening Night (Saturday), Brenda Rae sang Semele, Stephanie Blythe sang Ino/Juno, and Alek Shrader sang Jupiter/Apollo. On Sunday afternoon, Mary Feminear sang Semele, Deborah Nansteel sang Ino/Juno, and Theo Lebow sang Jupiter/Apollo. The latter cast also sings on Friday, 6 March, and the former the other four performances.

Despite the fate of the heroine, the tone of the opera, so different from the bloodshed and betrayals in the serious Handel operas, is indicative of domestic drama, which so much of the Greek myths focus on between the punctuated equilibrium of war, and the music reminded me of Cleopatra's in "Giulio Cesare." There is a lot of lamenting in "Semele" amidst the fireworks. That this is one of those "Greek gods will be Greek gods" dramas, and that the fights and betrayals are between women is a lighter subject is punctuated by the Thebans' happy acceptance of Bacchus in Semele's place, okay, now let's dance. As vain as Semele might be, seeking immortality is not just vanity and pride, but speaks to time. Semele seems to have a lot of it, waiting around in silky gowns for Jupiter to stop running the world and come to see her, but she's spending that time with little else to do but fret, and she's not getting any younger. While I don't think she has a true concept of what being immortal might mean in terms of endless time, she thinks it will solve her immediate problem.

I was sitting in Second Tier (top section) for both performances in the far left section (of five sections). On Saturday, I was farther to the auditorium wall in the 10th row; yesterday I was in the second row, one seat end closest to the center. Not unexpectedly, Stephanie Blythe has, by far, the biggest voice of all of the women. She sounded superb, and she's inhabits the god's jealous wife and leader role, leavened by humor. (She doesn't get to use her great gift for comedy and comedic nuance as Fricka.) It's not that Brenda Rae's voice is small, but Blythe could have blown her out of the water in their duet, and, instead their voices had a golden blend. Deborah Nansteel, who sang the roles on Sunday, has a beautiful voice and brilliant interpretation, but her voice is too small for McCaw Hall, which has great acoustics. When the orchestra was low, like during Ino's lament, you could hear a pin drop in the hall, she was so good, but when the orchestra picked up and was bright, she was hard to hear if not covered, the harmonies in the duet with Semele didn't register throughout her register, and (vocally) she wasn't a convincing queen of the gods: her Semele, Mary Feminear, sounded like she had the upper hand, and Iris, Amanda Forsythe, whose voice isn't huge, soared in their scenes together. (Coloraturas can carry over a lot.) It has to be inevitable that not only will Semele fail, but that Juno's personal strength will cause her to prevail and not by default because she's older and has better insurance. I wish I could have heard Nansteel in this opera in a smaller venue.

I liked both Semele's very much. Mary Feminear's voice is brighter, and she had a bit more spark dramatically, but I don't remember being aware that Brenda Rae breathed at all during those long, long passages. I'm surprised Alek Shrader took on the role of Jupiter: it seemed to lie so low in the voice for much of the role, I didn't recognize his voice from other things I've heard him in, and he's singing in "Daughter of the Regiment" this summer in Santa Fe. Theo Lebow, like Nansteel a former SO Young Artist, sounded more comfortable in the range and also in the style -- the runs for him sounded natural -- and he also has a lovely top; his voice sounds heftier in general, at least in this role. SO keeps sending us winners in the cute tenor sweepstakes, and since the highlight of the opera for me is the sublime "Where e'er you walk," I was thrilled to hear two such beautiful interpretations.

SO will broadcast the Rae/Blythe/Shrader cast this Saturday night, 28 February, at 7:30pm PST (10:30pm EST) on KING-FM, over the airwaves and through online streaming:


The "Listen" button gives a choice of computer or mobile player, which will launch a separate window (at least on a desktop).

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I'm not sure how I missed this trailer, but it gives a sense of how the dancers were used and the costumes:

There's also a "Road to Paradise: Costumes" video that among other things, shows how Pasithea's shell (worn by Tori Peil) was constructed. Here's the videos list, with several backstage videos:


Subscribers get 50% off the remaining three performances. It seems to be built into the account, unlike PNB's system, which doesn't apply subscriber discounts without a promo code.

For those who missed the live radio broadcast last night, there are clips of arias by both casts on Soundbridge:


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