Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Handel's Semele — Arizona Opera Company

On January 30th Suzy and I attended the Arizona Opera Company's performance of Semele by Handel. Some musicologists classify it as a "secular oratorio" rather than an opera, but all presentations of it I've found listed by Google have been completely staged — by opera companies — so it makes little difference what label one hangs on it. Remarkably, this was the very first baroque opera ever staged by AOC in its 35-year history. I do hope they do more of it — particularly more Handel; I'd also be happy to see some Monteverdi.

Upon arriving, I brought a lifetime streak to an end: we were late! Normally we leave home about 6:30-6:35 for a 7:30 performance, which almost always gets us through the front doors at Symphony Hall at about 7:05, with plenty of time to have a coffee and cookie, chat, look at the pretty dressed-up ladies and stuffed shirts, and prepare to be put to sleep soon.

On our journey we encountered an accident snarl on the I-10. It was bumper-to-bumper from there all the way to the parking lot. When we walked in they were playing the last measures of the overture. The decrepit volunteer ushers were whispering "There's still time to be seated!" — barely. They stuck us in the back row, which I guess is a penalty box they normally keep open for latecomers. At least it was roomy. The sound and view were naturally somewhat muffled from there, though not terrible. So it was from there that we saw the entire first act. If we had been fifteen seconds later we would have watched it on plasma TV screens in the lobby.

It was the first time in my memory of a lifetime of concertgoing that I was ever late to a performance event. (I'm not counting performances at Smith Music Hall while in music school that I may have wandered into during mid-performance, having not previously committed myself to going. I'll add that during my six years in Urbana I attended at least eighty percent of what was presented at Smith Hall — probably more.) Added to the fact that I had a bad experience that morning which upset me, I was disappointed to break my lifetime perfect record of on-timeness, so I arrived in a somewhat foul mood.

Naturally, the musicians used modern instruments, no doubt for a lack of appropriate gear and specialist performers, because after all, this was another performance by the AOC using their standard orchestra members; but the program said the singers followed eighteenth century vocal practice rigorously. It certainly sounded so to my ears.

The producers chose to present the work, not in traditional baroque fashion, but with twentieth century pop art staging. The first set consisted of five full-color giant female eyeball paintings hung high over the stage, reminiscent of Andy Warhol, with a set of stark black and white striped furniture. (I presumed the eyeball gender because of the makeup, though in 2006 such conclusions are by no means true.)

"Say what!?" I said to myself.

When a slight guy appeared in Ivy League garb, replete with sweater draped around the shoulders, sleeves tied in front, and a tennis racquet, and began flitting around the stage while singing the countertenor (falsetto) role, which at first, not knowing the plot, I mistook as an effort to portray him as gay as can be, I rolled my eyes, sat back in my chair, and proceeded to make a concerted and successful effort to fall asleep, convinced that the producers had lost their collective mind. It turns out he was scheduled to marry the title character — in the end he fell in love with and married her sister instead.

For readers who may not be aware, a countertenor is a male singer who sings in the female range, usually in falsetto. This may be accomplished in modern times through extensive training first as a baritone or tenor, graduating to specialization in the upper voice. In previous times, when such voices were valued by the Roman Catholic Church, and before it was outlawed, potential countertenors were given surgical help in their youth by means of a procedure that did not involve the vocal chords.

I'm sorry I fell asleep, though given my tiredness after my usual Saturday afternoon long run, a few moments of shuteye was inevitable.

By the end of the first act I started to come around, by which time I began to realize — Oh, this thing is a comedy! It's supposed to be funny. Meanwhile I'd dozed through some undoubtedly superlative music.

There were two intermissions. After the first act we moved to our much better usual seats. From the second act on, refreshed by my nap, I was able to pay proper attention.

The vocalists were by and large excellent, including the countertenor, who did not reappear until the last half of the third act. They did sound much like traditional opera singers rather than baroque specialists, other than the countertenor, who of course is a specialist, because there is virtually no other literature for countertenors, but they sang clean as a whistle.

The cast of characters numbered six. The title role went to a soprano with astonishing virtuosity. Some of the most technically demanding music ever written for singers — most fun to listen to — is to be found in the showy coloratura passages of Handel. In fact, Getting to hear singers showing off is probably what most people like to hear most in Handel's operas and oratorios. The questions that invariably present themselves include: how fast will they go, can this singer cut it, hit most of the notes, mostly in tune, keep up with the pace of the orchestra, and not run out of breath or appear to be left gasping for breath in the next eight bars before he or she has a chance to inhale again? In this regard I'm reminded of the challenges of the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, except that in the latter they also have to deal with mind-bogglingly complex and tongue-twisting lyrics.[1]
[1] "I am the very model of a modern major general,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical. ...
I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous."

The only singer I had reservations about was the bass, the father of the title character. It's one thing for a soprano to rattle through those long melismas under a cushion of orchestral backing, but to make it sound clearly in the bass range is technically almost impossible — as was demonstrated by this night's performer. He did perform one amusing and well-acted aria, though — a slower number, in which he was supposed to be the god of sleep trying to wake up, wherein he kept falling back over on his side, and letting his voice continue to drop another half another half-octave below what was written.

By far the best singer to my ears was the sister of the title character, a contralto by my estimation of nearly 300 pounds who shook the walls when she sang, manifested total control and freedom, breathtaking technique, acted superbly, and turned out to be quite the comic character. Upon accepting applause at the end, the enthusiastic cheers earned for her from the audience indicated that the masses in attendance agreed with my own assessment.

As I got into the performance I began to enjoy some of the humorous touches. One of the characters, the tenor who played Zeus, being a god, had the ability to make funny things happen at the wave of a hand, as couches would move into position, and needed objects would appear. The stage was tended by a group of five non-singing tuxedoed men, who brought things in and out, including cotton cloud bedecked scaffolding on wheels with a couch on top from whence various gods and goddesses sang.

In one aria Zeus sang to Semele and desired to give her some flowers, whereupon an attendant walked in with an enormous bouquet of roses, but while continuing to sing to unaware Semele, Zeus made a gesture indicating something bigger, whereupon the attendants wheeled in six 10-foot-tall ultracloseup paintings of roses filling the entire stage, making a most impressive backdrop.

In another, Semele has magically become transformed in such a way that when she looks at herself in a tiny mirror she no longer sees herself as a mere mortal, but as a goddess. She is so impressed with herself she can't get over it, and begins singing an aria that begins with the lyrics that go
Myself I shall adore,
If I persist in gazing.
No object sure before
Was ever half so pleasing.
which goes on and on to ridiculous lengths with no other lyrics added. Each time she launches into the amusing key phrase, beginning yet another session of self-adulation, another attendant walks in with a bigger mirror than before. In the background, the silent sister, who patiently endures it for the first several times (it was she who set the whole thing up in order to make Semele think she was a goddess and suitable match for Zeus, so she could capture the attention of the countertenor for herself), eventually started rolling her eyes, and eventually prostrated herself flat on the couch in exasperation. Surely this over the top immodesty must have been viewed as hysterically funny in Handel's day as well.

Semele, being mortal, could not really ever "unite" with Zeus, because it would destroy her, and Zeus knew it, but pursued it anyhow. He decides to go through with the unitification, but proclaims that he will use his lowest powered lightning bolt to incinerate her. At the critical time, first Semele disappears behind a screen, while making seductive gestures toward Zeus, following which Zeus shrugs his shoulders and joins her behind the screen. There is an enormous and comical flash of lightning and explosion, the screen is lifted, and Zeus is alone, but there is a large cloud of smoke where Semele supposedly had been happily uniting with Zeus. More yucks.

In another scene (I'm telling these things out of sequence), a refrigerator was wheeled out and left in the background. As each character entered, including the stage hands, he or she would go to the refrigerator and open the top compartment, which was stocked to bursting with yogurt cups. The character would take one and carry out the rest of the scene while spooning yogurt. In another scene later on, with the refrigerator still on stage, Zeus comes out to sing to Semele, and opens the bottom half to find it conveniently bursting with champagne bottles.

Other lyrics provoked titters from a 21st century audience, particularly the aria with the opening (oft-repeated) line, in anticipation of Semele's upcoming marriage:
Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare,
Love already his has lighted!
Hmmm. I wonder how many persons are aware that Hymen was the torch-bearing god of marriage in Greek mythology, the son of Apollo and a muse? I have to wonder if Handel himself saw the saucy double entendre that was implied?

By the conclusion of the opera, I was enjoying myself enormously. As the third act was about to begin I turned and said to Suzy: "This opera needs a chorus!" Handel wrote some of the greatest choral music ever written, yet this opera consisted to that point entirely of a sequence of solo arias (with a couple of duets), separated by mercifully short recitatives. Handel was an enormously popular and successful composer in his day, and clearly knew which side of the paper his check was written on, so I surmised maybe there would be a chorus in the third act. Georgie did not disappoint, as the Finale consisted of a glorious work sung by the entire cast (sans stage hands, who were nonetheless on stage). Okay, so a sextet, not a chorus, but with six parts rather than four, just as good -- and one of the best I've ever heard from Handel a well. It was shorter than I would have liked. In compatibility with our desire to see happy endings in comedies, the lyrics, Still saucy by their licentiously amoral implications, go:
Happy, happy shall we be,
Free from care, from sorrow free.
Guiltless pleasures we'll enjoy,
Virtuous love will never cloy;
All that's good and just we'll prove,
And Bacchus crown the joys of love.
In the end, judging by the audience's warm applause, a good time was had by all, and we left smiling and laughing.

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