Seattle Opera is staging its own production of Handel’s “Semele,” and it has brought all kinds of talents to bear: Lady Gaga’s costumer, Met regular and local favorite Stephanie Blythe and a rising star in the title role.
For its first-ever production of Handel’s sparkling, irresistibly tuneful “Semele,” Seattle Opera has pulled out all the stops.
Aware that this is only the third work by Handel to grace the company’s stage, and that, while it’s in English, the opera’s undeniably sensuous and oft-amusing upstairs-downstairs tale of gods and mortals, and the dual snares of love and ego, can strain credulity, the company has assembled a creative team to enable “Semele’s” glorious music to speak to us.
Both director Tomer Zvulun, who previously directed “Lucia di Lammermoor” here in 2010, and costume designer Vita Tzykun, whose credits include outfitting Lady Gaga, explain that their approach to Semele is rooted in what Tzykun calls its “timeless poetry” and “metaphorical and symbolic language.”
By George Frideric Handel, with Tomer Zvulun directing, and Gary Thor Wedow, conducting, with Stephanie Blythe, Brenda Rae and Alek Shrader, Feb. 21-March 7, McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
“Rather than trying to reinterpret the story in some kind of period setting, we decided to speak through colors, forms and shapes to create our own mythological world,” Tzykun says. “The reason that it’s a modern mythological world is that it’s important for the audience to have just enough to grab onto so they have a frame of reference.”
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To differentiate gods from mortals, the immortals’ wardrobe is distinguished by colorful, flowing pleated fabrics and unexpected elements that emphasize their bigger-than-life nature. The humans, however, wear monochromatic, angular garb to symbolize how restricted they are, and how dull their lives can be.
“Leave all your expectations at home,” Tzykun says. “The production will be very unique visually. The costume shop worked really hard to custom-make things that were never made before. It’s as new as new productions can get.”
Director Zvulun, who teams with Tzykun several times a year, underscores that Handel’s operas are a series of poems “that have been spun into a metaphysical, ethereal world. Thus, we have created a modern mythological world where we take the metaphysical and poetic ideas of Handel and his librettist, William Congreve, and infuse them with expressive, sometimes surreal elements that bring the mythological ideas closer to home.”
Artistry and music
Heading the cast is mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a Seattle Opera favorite who has also made more than 200 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera. In her fourth appearance in “Semele” since she began her professional career, Blythe undertakes the dual roles of the mortal Ino, sister of Semele, and Juno, wife of the god Jupiter. Given that Jupiter is smitten with Semele, Juno is none too pleased. Among Blythe’s rewards for being passed over for a mere mortal is the opportunity to sing the deliciously vengeful aria, “Hence, hence, Iris hence away.”
“Other than the fact that Ino and Juno exist in entirely different worlds, the main way to show the difference between them is by changing the color of the voice,” she says. “I tend to roll Ino’s ‘r’s and make her language, as well as timbre, softer-grained. Juno has a more direct way of speaking, and she’s written so entirely differently that I really don’t have to do much more than focus the tone a bit so it’s brighter and more distinctive. The text is so brilliantly written and Shakespearean in scope that the character is right there in the text.”
Joining Blythe will be tenor Alek Shrader (Jupiter), whose career has really taken off since appearing in the film “The Audition”; soprano Brenda Rae (Semele), whose international ascent includes any number of highflying roles; countertenor Randall Scotting (Athames), a baroque specialist; veteran bass-baritone John Del Carlo (Somnus), whose 26-year history with Seattle Opera is self-recommending; and soprano Amanda Forsythe (Iris), whose sound is so delicious that she’s returning, in May, to perform Vivaldi and Bach with the Seattle Symphony.
By opera’s end, these stars will have performed any number of delectable arias, including the exquisite “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me,” “Where’er you walk,” and the absurd showpiece, “Myself I shall adore.” The latter is a favorite with coloratura sopranos, who relish the opportunity to throw in enough trills, ornaments, and high notes to propel opera queens to impossible heights of dizzy adulation.
“It’s wonderful music,” says Blythe. “The choral work is so breathtaking, even in comparison to Handel’s other work, including ‘Messiah.’ The chorus is actually a fully realized character in ‘Semele’ — it’s a true Greek chorus — which is marvelous.
“Also, this piece is funny. People think of early music as a very, very serious vehicle, but this piece is lighthearted, sexy, and very sensual. There’s a wonderful amount of sarcasm.
“Arias such as ‘Myself I Shall Adore’ — there’s no way to sing that aria without your tongue being firmly planted in your cheek — or Jupiter’s ‘I must with speed amuse her’ are so wonderfully witty.”