Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19 continues with George Frideric Handel’s 1744 operatic masterpiece Semele at the Perelman Theater.
Semele is a co-production with Opera Omaha, with the same creative designers onboard for this iteration. The Perelman continues to convince us that it is a perfect operatic stage. Technically created as a “musical drama,” Semele here proves that it is a wonderful work for the stage. The Creative Team includes Director James Darrah, Choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, Scenic and Lighting Design by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, and Projection Design by Adam Larsen. Philadelphia Opera stalwarts David Zimmerman for Wig and Makeup Design and Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden complete this strong team. Gary Thor Wedow expertly conducted his marvelous orchestra from the pit.
Semele deals with the title character, a young woman of outstanding beauty, and rather weak intellect, who has been having an affair with Jupiter, King of the Gods. She implores him to save her from marrying a noble mortal, in what appears to be a war zone beautifully decked out for Halloween, and Jupiter snatches her up into the heavens in the form of an eagle. Jupiter then builds Semele a palace in the clouds with Vulcan’s assistance. This enrages Juno, Jupiter’s wife, who plots Semele’s death. Most of the opera then occurs in this celestial domain, peopled by sensualist immortals as chorus and dancers. There is almost constant movement in this Semele. Most of it is pleasing. However, one did yearn once or twice to just let the singers act and let the music tell the story without dancing whirlwinds.
As the plot progresses, we hear from Iris, Ino, Somnus, and others, and witness piquant scenes which delight the eye and ear. Amanda Forsythe is the wily vixen Semele, who possesses great stage presence as well as seemingly indefatigable technique. Daniella Mack, who has appeared here in both Philadelphia Opera’s recent Carmen and Elizabeth Cree, impressed and thrilled with both her voice and acting skills in the dual roles of Juno and Ino. Tim Mead was the hapless fiancé Athamas, Sarah Shafer as Iris, Messenger of the Gods, capered about acting ditzy while singing some killer lines. Alek Shrader was a sexy, well-sung Jupiter. Alex Rosen appeared as both poppa Cadmus and campy Somnus. For all his youth, Rosen delivered true gravitas as Cadmus while engaging the audience in an amazing, characterful Somnus, one of the true highlights of the evening. Bravos should go to the orchestra for their sensitive, yet robust playing. Bravos also to the Chorus who have dozens of movement cues, some while singing, and others not, but still in character and acting true to the scene and action happening around them. Whether they are called upon to look on as shocked immortals, suffering mortals, or frightened onlookers seeing Semele’s immolation, they are uniformly amazing. The several dancers performed admirably, often while wearing little more than napkins. Principal Dancer Lindsey Matheis moved with grace, sensuality, and athleticism.
Rarely seen or heard, Semele is a true treat for Handelians or for anyone who loves opera. This Semele is a true beauty, with outstanding design, movement, orchestral playing, acting and singing. Semele is a must-see experience.
Semele is onstage at the Perelman Theater September 19, 21, 24, 26, and 28 only. For information and tickets, visit www.operaphila.org