Though now popular in many of the world’s great music capitals, Handel operas have been curiously absent here. Oddly enough, on Thursday the composer’s Semele made its second Philadelphia appearance of the year, at Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19. But it arrived in a singular guise.
Just as the opera’s character, the god Jupiter, shape-shifts radically in the course of Semele — a lightning bolt one minute, a tenor the next — so did the opera, itself, from the unstaged performance by the touring English Concert at the Annenberg Center this spring to O19’s fully staged production (one might say over-staged) at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.
Sophisticated computer graphics, choreography for the chorus (with dancers mixed in), and a strong theatrical viewpoint typical of O19 turned Handel’s mythological characters into cult denizens who could easily connect with a 21st-century sensibility. Here, Semele flees an arranged marriage in one cult only to enter another shadowy, controlling society collected around Jupiter.
And that’s Semele for you. When Handel unveiled the piece in 1744, operas were out and oratorios were in. So he wrote a sexy opera about the beautiful but somewhat hapless Semele, who believed that immortality is a girl’s best friend, and demanded it from her lover Jupiter.
But Handel dressed up the story like a Biblical oratorio with the kind of choruses that made Messiah a classic-to-be, while leaving all kinds of interpretive leeway for bold directors like James Darrah at O19.
Because you’re not likely to hear any consensus on the theatrical elements, let’s start by discussing the indisputables: Singers were often ideal, with tone, agility, and style all in the right proportions. This was especially so for soprano Amanda Forsythe in the title role, Alek Shrader (who recently sang Candide with the Philadelphia Orchestra) as Jupiter, and Daniela Mack as Juno.
In a secondary role, Sarah Shafer (Iris) showed how full-bodied her voice can now be, and the superb British countertenor Tim Mead amounted to luxury casting in the role of Athamus.
Often, the vocal performances came with detailed theatrical subtexts, obviously informed by Darrah’s highly motivated direction. But Forsythe’s spectacular vocal ornaments added what-will-she-do-next brinksmanship that few Handel modern singers can touch.
Beyond that, the production was more about what Semele could be, rather than what it was 275 years ago.
How much you agreed with those decisions started with whether any Handel opera should be directed with a capital “D.” So much narrative information is inherent in the music that the unstaged Annenberg performance felt perfectly complete. Yet the dramaturgy of Semele is undeniably dated, haphazard, and in need of intervention. Arias were cut and rearranged with a thoughtful sense of overall emotional contour.
The production’s look was rather 19th century, like those creepy photos of spiritualist societies. But at many points, there was simply too much stage traffic.
In keeping with the cult idea, every third scene seemed to have nests of writhing arms and hands grasping and investigating whatever character was supposed to be the focal point of the scene. Intimacy was lacking in key moments among the characters due to so many onlookers.
Decluttering was often in order, including much of the choreography, which was often alluring but only underscored what had already been conveyed.
And yet there was also some pretty magical stuff.
Semele’s great looking-glass aria, “Myself I shall adore,” had computerized images (credited to Adam Larsen) of her reflected everywhere, and in increasing numbers.
Jupiter’s great aria, “Where’er You Walk,” can easily be literalized to death with floral scenery. Here, computerized animation poetically reflected the Garden of Eden imagery that’s described in the music.
And there might be even more magic in subsequent performances if conductor Gary Thor Wedow can secure sturdier string playing and more emotional engagement from the orchestra.
Performances through Sept. 28 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad St., as part of Opera Philadelphia’s Festival 019.