Semele is quite different from Tosca, our last opera. When I came to Seattle and saw that Speight had organized Semele for this season, I was absolutely delighted, because for me a good season program consists of contrasts and variety. For Semele to come so close on the heels of Tosca is the best way for our audience to appreciate that opera comes in many, many shapes and forms. Variety is not only the spice of life—it’s essential for us to understand the whole spectrum of this wonderful art form. I like it when the audience enter the theater and they do not know what is behind the curtain. You think you know opera because you’ve seen Tosca? Suddenly we give you a completely different way of getting to the same outcome: a highly charged, intense, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling evening in the theater.
What is it you love about Handel? Handel has always been very dear to me. What I love about him is the humanity in his music, coupled with great style, elegance, and grace. Now we’re doing this piece directly after Tosca, and I cannot think of two pieces more dissimilar. Tosca overwhelms you with the force of its emotion, whereas by comparison Semele seems restrained. But its secrets are just hidden below the surface. And whereas Tosca is plotted in a very linear fashion, cause and effect—if Cavaradossi hadn’t happened to see Angelotti come out of the chapel at that very moment, the rest of the opera wouldn’t have happened—Semele has a complicated setup and then moves in a more measured way. It’s like peeling an orange, you go beneath the surface to get the fruit, and you realize it’s more delicious than it looked on the outside.
Semele is unfamiliar in Seattle. Can you outline the story for us? It begins on the wedding day of Princess Semele, who is due to marry a young prince called Athamas. But she has fallen in love with Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Jupiter loves her. Jupiter is of course married to Juno, so we have a love triangle or love-quartet, made more complex by the fact that Semele’s sister Ino loves Athamas, the man Semele is about to marry. So yes, a complex setup.
What happens is, in the nick of time, Jupiter swoops down in the form of an eagle and plucks Semele up from the marriage ceremony to his higher realm, where he installs her in a pleasure-palace guarded by dragons. Then Juno concocts a plot: she will obtain a powerful drug for her husband which will enflame his desire, rob him of his reason, and make him bow to Semele’s every whim. Then, disguising herself as Semele’s beloved sister, Juno gives Semele a mirror enhancing her beauty and suggests that Semele ask Jupiter to make her immortal. But Juno knows all along that if Jupiter appears to Semele in his godlike form, the girl will be consumed by flames. And indeed that’s exactly what happens. And at the end, out of her ashes is born Bacchus, or Dionysus, the god of wine. And so the moral of the tale is that from this philandering god and beautiful starlet, the world is given the god who represents abandon and unconstrained love. Semele is a bawdy tale.
Handel was the master of Italian opera when he first came to London. But as public tastes moved away from that art form, he developed the oratorio. Now, the vast bulk of his oratorios are to Old Testament texts, Bible stories. So what shocked his audiences about Semele is that it didn’t follow an Old Testament text; he used a bawdy libretto written by William Congreve, which playfully suggested that licentiousness and free love was ok, just part of human nature.
Is Semele happy or sad? Comic or tragic? It’s hard to say. It’s witty—the text is knowing, it’s saucy. Yes, she dies; but it’s almost as if she and Jupiter have the last laugh, by giving birth to Bacchus. Their little child, born out of wedlock, is a little devil who encourages free thought. It doesn’t fit neatly within a genre, which is akin to the English spoken theater. Shakespeare, for instance, likes to mix genres, whereas European theater tends to be written either as a comedy or a tragedy. English theater has always relished ambiguity. In dark or serious moments there’s dry or black humor, and vice versa—within comedies there’s great seriousness. So it’s almost impossible to say whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.
Is there a trick to enjoying Handel’s music? Handel’s music doesn’t have the immediate dynamism of Puccini or Wagner or Verdi. Just as the action doesn’t propel forward at great pace, so this music allows you time to reflect. In those days people had more leisure time than we do, and they accepted that going to an opera was a leisurely experience. So Handel’s operas are structured as this series of strong insights and strong emotions, which move inexorably from one to the next, until the conclusion.
The chief musical style of a Handel opera is the da capo aria, an ABA form. The first section takes two lines of text and gives a very extended iteration of that. There’s then a shorter B section, which takes a further piece of text, adding a different tone or color or thought to that stated originally. And then what happens—da capo means ‘from the top’—we go back to the beginning and have a full statement of the A section again which is colored in the light of the B section. It’s a repeat which the singer is encouraged to ornament, and the character, who has had their second thought, reconsiders their first thought. It’s a very formal device, and it’s the core musical structure of Handelian opera.
So do you have to suspend your disbelief to listen to a da capo aria? Coleridge’s phrase, “the willing suspension of disbelief,” was actually coined about fifty years after this opera was written. And yes, stylistically this form may seem quite alien to our 21st-century sensibility. But if you sit back and allow yourself to be consumed by the dramatic pace and the style, it may require a bit more work initially; but once one buys into the tempo, we have an exceedingly rich experience. Strong emotions, be they love or rage, are given full vent. You know, if we get angry, we tend to get angry for a few moments. Whereas here people are angry for six or seven minutes nonstop! It’s like an extended riff on the idea of anger. The music and action moves, like a game of chess, from step to step, and just as a chess player thinks about his move before he makes it, the audience is also given that breathing space to assess the situation.
And don’t forget the performance of the singer. This was one of the great eras for opera singers. In these operas we’re not meant to engage exclusively with the character. The skill of the performer is inextricably linked with our understanding and appreciation. And the ornamentation or improvisation was not written down. So it gives a singer today the same scope it gave Handel’s singers: to interpret the music or give it their own feel, to add that personal embellishment which helps the audience communicate with the singer and connect with the character.
Singers today understand how wonderfully Handel writes for the voice. He’s not writing mechanically, even though at first hearing the music may seem to follow strict structural rules. There is immense feeling in the writing for voice, great depth of emotion.
Speaking of singers, does this production feature a countertenor? Yes, another interesting feature of Semele is the role of Athamas, which is sung by a countertenor, a male alto. The taste for the castrato, the castrated male sopranos who dominated Handel’s earlier Italian opera phase, had died out, probably much to the relief of choir boys around Europe. So why did Handel choose to cast Athamas as an alto and not, say, as a tenor? I presume Handel wanted to reserve the emotion which the tenor voice compels for Jupiter. The slightly ethereal, perhaps even asexual voice of the countertenor seemed appropriate to this ineffective character, who fails to win Semele’s love. Then, when Jupiter comes in, with his tenor voice, the audience thinks: “Ah, yes, at last, that’s got the real emotion, I can see why Semele is drawn to him.” Rather than the pure and virtuous, if slightly dull, Athamas.
What else should we be listening for? There are several very famous arias. “Where’er you walk,” Jupiter’s Act Two aria to Semele, is one of Handel’s best-known tunes, and people are often pleasantly surprised to discover it comes from this opera.
Mark Padmore sings "Where'er you walk"
Semele’s “Myself I shall adore” is a beautiful highlight. I also love Juno’s “Hence, Iris, away,” the aria in Act Two in which she fires up her plot.
Stephanie Blythe sings "Hence, Iris, away"
And by complete contrast, the aria for Somnus at the beginning of Act Three, “Leave me, loathsome light,” is this wonderfully slow, lethargic aria sung by the god of sleep. So it’s that variety which delights and surprises in this piece.
Tell us a little about our design team and all the creative technology they’re using in this new production. First of all, we have Gary Thor Wedow, a Handelian specialist, on the podium, so we’re in the finest possible hands there. Our director, Tomer Zvulun, is a child of Seattle Opera. He worked here as an Assistant Director over a few years. He’s now the General Director of Atlanta Opera, and we’re delighted to bring him back for this brand-new production. The scenic designer, Erhard Rom, is also a Seattle person; he cut his teeth on La bohème for us. Keep an eye on his use of projections—that’s an important part of his visual language. Our costume designer, making her Seattle Opera debut, is Vita Tzykun, and she’s come up with some fantastic and fantastical costumes, which have a rich palette of fabric, of color, and also of different looks. So I think we’re in for a real visual treat. Robert Wierzel is lighting the production. And it may surprise you to learn that choreography also plays a role. Donald Byrd, of Spectrum Dance, is taking charge of the dancers.
The beauty of doing a piece involving classical gods is: what on earth do they look like? To answer the question we have to go to the heart of what the myth is about and deliver accordingly. So we have what you might call a modern take on Greek mythology. The team has created sculptural costumes for the mortal scenes and given sensuality and flamboyance to the gods. Because in a sense that’s where the heart of the story lies, the love triangle spread across those two worlds. Semele aspires to a glamorous world beyond her mortal existence. So our costume designs for the gods are soft, sensual, flowing fabrics, whereas the characters of the mortal world are really quite stiff, they’re geometric. It’s no surprise that Semele wants to get out of the stiff mortal world into the sensual and flowing world of Jupiter.
The set features many different planes and uses projection. It’s not descriptive, the way the set for Tosca was highly descriptive of place. Here we’re in a more abstracted place, and the projection can change its tone and quality very deftly. This technology gives us the ability to really change the visual picture quickly and silently, without huge scene changes which would interrupt the action. It’s also very beautiful—I think when we saw the designs we were all taken with how beautiful it is. I think what the team have given us is something very fluid. Paired with Handel’s measured musical structure, we actually have a visual language which allows speed and transition and change. That way we don’t feel constrained by the five or six minutes we may spend on a single da capo aria, because the stage picture may well evolve over the course of the music.
You can also download and listen to Aidan Lang’s comments on Semele on our SoundCloud page.