Seattle Opera scored an extraordinary triumph with its brand-new Semele (seen Feb. 21 and 22), a timeless and beautiful modern-dress production that delivered “endless pleasure” indeed. Stage director Tomer Zvulun, designers Erhard Rom (sets), Vita Tzykun (costumes) and Robert Wierzel (lighting) and choreographer Donald Byrd did outstanding work on Handel’s opera, based on the myth of the mortal woman Semele and her affair with Jupiter, king of the gods.
During the overture, large headshots of gods projected on a scrim and the small figures of mortals seen through it introduced the characters and cast. While sacrificial flames rose on earth, the elevated Semele aspired to rise higher, to Jupiter in the clouds. During the choral bursts “Avert these omens” and “Cease, cease your vows,” lightning streaked the sky, and six dancers in blue leotards, faces painted and hair dyed blue, streaked the stage. When her union with Jupiter had been achieved, Semele sang “Endless pleasure” in a sensuous maroon gown, seeming to emerge from the shadowed petals of a huge pink rose.
As Act II began, a projection of Greece’s Mt. Olympus morphed into one of gold-crowned Juno. Iris, Juno’s mercurial spy, sported a Trojan helmet with headlamp and winged shoes with lights under the heels, and her fingers shot green lasers that oscillated when she trilled. Semele sang “O sleep, why dost thou leave me” in a bedroom with elegant white curtains and a view of Olympus with gleaming glacier. The moon rose over the mountain for Jupiter’s “Where’er you walk,” stars revolved for Ino’s “But hark, the heav’nly sphere turns round,” and earth rotated for the chorus “Bless the glad earth.”
Act III’s “Cave of Sleep” was here the “Somnus Night Club & Lounge,” the somnolent god trailing a great cape light-studded with constellations. Semele’s “My racking thoughts” was staged as a clear counterpart to “O sleep,” her “visionary joys” now become “painful nights.” As she warbled “Myself I shall adore,” pictures of herself popped up all over the set. She expired before a screen of flames around an image of Jupiter and was solemnly borne off by the dancers. Apollo, his image projected onscreen and his voice amplified, foretold the birth of Bacchus from her ashes. A frieze of Bacchus, grapes and leaves hung for the joyful final chorus.
Singing her first Semele, Brenda Rae was sensual in “O Sleep” and “With fond desiring,” dazzling in the coloratura of “Myself I shall adore” and long runs of “No, no, I’ll take no less,” and moving in her death scene. Time stopped when Rae and Stephanie Blythe sang the rapt beginning of the duet “Prepare then, ye immortal choir.” Imperious as Juno and affable as Semele’s sister Ino, Blythe had fun changing the color of her voice when Juno disguised herself as Ino, shifting from baleful to sweet for the last word of the aside “And sure destruction will ensue, vain wretched fool, adieu!” Blythe’s Juno had a special resonance due to her many Seattle performances of a similarly jealous goddess, Fricka.
Looking like a long-haired rock star as Jupiter, Alek Shrader (who also doubled as Apollo) caught the potent rush of “I must with speed amuse her,” the liquid lyricism of “Where’er you walk” and the high tragedy of “’Tis past, ’tis past recall, she must a victim fall.” John Del Carlo was an authoritative Cadmus and an amusing Somnus, his singing commanding if rough. As Iris, Amanda Forsythe, possessor of a superb technique, was vocal and visual perfection. The pleasant but modest countertenor of Randall Scotting, the Athamas, was overmatched by the voices of Blythe and Del Carlo.
Gary Thor Wedow, Seattle Opera’s go-to maestro for eighteenth-century music, conducted his most persuasive local performances yet. Nuanced dynamics enhanced “Endless pleasure,” and the chorus “Now Love that everlasting boy invites” throbbed with percussive verve. Period instruments — virginal (played by Wedow), harpsichord, portative organ, theorbo, guitar — augmented modern ones in an orchestra of thirty-seven musicians; the chorus was trimmed to twenty-eight.
In the second cast, lively Mary Feminear (Semele), rich-toned Deborah Nansteel (Juno/Ino) and finely focused Theo Lebow (Jupiter/Apollo) sang their roles effectively, if not at the level of Rae, Blythe and Shrader.