One can regret that, when Handel decided it no longer made economic sense to produce Italian opera seria in London and turned to writing English oratorios instead, mainly on Biblical subjects, he didn’t write more works like Semele. It strikes a most happy medium between the two genres, having an English libretto (by William Congreve) and a lot of choruses but otherwise behaving like an opera, and a supremely entrancing one at that. In treating the familiar subject of an encounter between a prowling Jupiter and an alluring mortal woman, Semele deftly balances humor and poignancy and has much to say about human nature as well.
The work has rightfully won a place in the repertoire, even in the United States since its U.S. premiere at the Ravinia Festival in 1959. Its inclusion this year (seen on September 21) as one of four operas constituting Opera Philadelphia’s annual September festival—now an important event—is welcome, despite a drab production. A joint venture with Opera Omaha, where it was seen in 2016, this Semele directed by James Darrahopens with the stage depicting Thebes as a heap of ashes (Emily Anne MacDonald designed the sets), as if reeling from a cataclysmic event.
You can’t say that ashes are unrelated to the opera’s text, even if the ones here are contrary to its spirit. Right at the start, Cadmus, the king of Thebes and Semele’s father, proclaims that Juno has accepted a sacrifice in furtherance of Semele’s forced marriage to Athamas, a Boeotian prince—a burnt offering if there ever was one! And at the end a phoenix, we are told, will arise from Semele’s ashes. Unfortunately, the ashes on stage never go away, although they are shielded from view for Act II and much of Act III by a curtain consisting of wide, vertical strips, against which projections are sometimes dimly seen. The ashes underscore the need for contrast when Semele experiences with Jupiter an Olympian lifestyle in scenes that should dazzle but failed to do so here. (At least Sarah Schuessler’s costumes moved on from the unvarying blackness of Act I.)
The production has a substantial dance component (choreographed by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano), including four dancers who interacted with the principal singers, but it doesn’t compensate for the missing visual élan. A fifth dancer, Lindsey Matheis, acted as a double for Semele’s sister Ino, which made little sense in Act I but proved amusing later when Juno, in her jealousy, transforms herself into a second Ino in a scheme to bring about Semele’s downfall. (Juno’s version is also played by Daniela Mack, the original Ino.) Darrah’s direction was conscious of the opera’s humor and generally thoughtfully conceived, although one could quibble with some of his liberties, such as having Jupiter appear contrite during Juno’s cynical aria of revenge, “Above measure is the pleasure,” a moment that Juno should savor by herself.
The cast was excellent. Amanda Forsythe sang Semele with a sparklingly clear, slightly penetrating soprano, which she colored nicely. Fast arias glistened with expertly delivered coloratura, and she made the aria “Myself I shall adore” a delightful exercise in narcissism, appealingly ornamented in the da capo. Alek Shrader sang handsomely as Jupiter, offering an ingratiating account of the peerless aria “Where’er you walk,” although his voice sounded breathy in the da capo, sung quietly. Shrader was especially moving in expressing Jupiter’s remorse—in a haunting accompanied recitative with the refrain “she must a victim fall”—for having acceded to Semele’s demand that he appear before her not in mortal guise but “like himself, the Mighty Thunderer,” which he knows she cannot endure.
Daniela Mack was in superb form as both Ino, whose extended slow aria “Turn, hopeless lover” she made a high point, and as Juno, who she ensured radiated authority, relishing every step toward Semele’s demise. Alex Rosen sang both Cadmus and the sleep god Somnus in an appealingly robust bass voice, Tim Mead’s smooth countertenor served Athamas’s music well, and Sarah Shafer sang nicely while portraying Juno’s sister, Iris, as a ditzy blonde.
Leading Opera Philadelphia’s modern-instrument orchestra, augmented by harpsichord, theorbo, and organ, Gary Thor Wedow set sensible tempos and obtained satisfactory playing. The chorus sounded excellent in the intimate Perelman Theater, which made one regret that the chorus “Hail, Cadmus, hail,” so important in setting up Semele’s delightful aria “Endless pleasure, endless love,” was omitted. There were other cuts too, including Semele’s aria “With fond desiring” and the ensuing chorus, which made the lovemaking scene for Jupiter and Semele—really the heart of the opera—seem too short. Handel’s tidying of the plot, in which Athamas is paired off with Ino at the end, was also dispensed with. Instead, Athamas lost his final aria and was seen searching forlornly for Semele amid the ashes as the curtain fell.