It is time to judge a bold experiment a success. When the University of Washington School of Music announced that acclaimed Seattle conductor/lutenist Stephen Stubbs would become artist-in-residence (and his organization, Pacific MusicWorks, would be ensemble-in-residence), it was unclear how the student-professional relationship would work in performances.
Now, with the debut of the groups’ production of Handel’s opera “Semele,” it is clear that this is a solid professional production, with fortunate students lifted up to a world-class level.
“Semele” is taken from a story by the Roman poet Ovid (using text from English playwright William Congreve and borrowed couplets from Alexander Pope), and plays in that classically rich dramatic zone where gods and mortals interact, so often with disastrous results. It’s that common story: girl meets boy, girl prefers a god, the god snatches her up, the jealous goddess tricks the lovers, the girl is incinerated in the divine brilliance of the lover who is, shall we say, out of her league.
This production is as rich a theatrical experience as it is a musical one. Not only does the stage director, Los Angeles-based James Darrah, deserve praise, but scenic and lighting designer Cameron Mock and video designer Adam Larsen must be called out for creating onstage magic that manages to use minimalist elements to achieve baroque detail. Even the way they display the supertitles is a stroke of genius.
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To the music: the spare baroque orchestra (here with the most direct mixing of professional and student, as they were paired, sharing music stands) conducted by Stubbs supports a robust (student) chorus and a brilliant cast of six principal singers who cover eight roles.
Colin Ramsey’s deep, rich bass is a foundation you could build a castle on. That castle is capped by a spire that is Haeran Hong’s acrobatic soprano voice in the title role, which inspired spontaneous bursts of applause and cries of “Brava!”
In between, there is nothing but excellence. Peabody Southwell’s hypnotically sonorous alto voice is unforgettable in the dual roles of Semele’s sister Ino and queen goddess Juno. Even the briefer roles sparkle. Nathan Medley is a dexterous countertenor in the role of the melancholic, jilted young prince, and soprano Valerie Vizant practically steals the show as the comically willful and wanton Iris, divine servant and temptress.
The primarily professional cast sings again on Saturday night, but the Sunday matinee, with student understudies stepping to the front, will feature excellent local singers like Emerald Lessley.
This collaboration between professionals and students will no doubt have a positive effect on developing musicians who will contribute more beauty in future performances. Our region is also fortunate that Pacific Musicworks has made rarely performed baroque gems regularly available, and has now taken this new step without compromising an inch of quality.
John Sutherland: firstname.lastname@example.org