DESKTOP
TABLET (max. 1024px)
MOBILE (max. 640px)
Return to Top
Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Opera review: Zhang Huan's messed-up Semele for Canadian Opera Company redeemed by soprano Jane Archibald

By John Terauds on May 9, 2012

Jane Archibald as Semele and William Burden as Jupiter in Canadian Opera Company’s production, which opened on Wendnesday night (Michael Cooper photo).

Resetting an opera in a different time and place happens all the time, and works fine when the director manages to preserve the essence of the composer and librettist’s intentions.

But, in trying to create a rapprochement between Chinese and European traditions, Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan has made a wreck out of the most popular full-length English Baroque opera, Semele, a work that bursts with some of the most beautiful music George Frideric Handel wrote.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Master playwright William Congreve’s dramatic libretto for this 1743 opera is inspired by Roman poet Ovid’s 2,000-year-old Metamorphoses. The set is dominated by a real Medieval Chinese temple, and the production takes advantage of every trick of modern stagecraft to turn this work into a shambles that is nonetheless saved by the some of the most fabulous singing heard in Toronto this season.

Nova Scotia native soprano Jane Archibald is alone worth the price of a ticket. She is spectacular in the title role, as a spoiled girl who spurns her fiancé for Jupiter, king of the gods.

The rest of the vocal cast is also strong.

Among the Canadians, mezzo Allyson McHardy is all creamy, dark magic as Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno (and Ino, Semele’s sister). Soprano Katherine Whyte is also excellent as Juno’s sidekick, Iris.

The visiting Americans do a fine job, with bass Steven Humes a stout Cadmus (Semele’s father) and Somnus, the god of sleep. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo makes an impressive show of his physical prowess as Athamas, Semele’s spurned fiancé.

But while tenor William Burden, as Jupiter, has a fine voice, he rarely seemed at ease with the florid demands of Handel’s bravura arias at the production’s opening night on Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre.

Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini wrings a fine, period-style sound from the COC Orchestra, giving Handel’s divine music all the lift and lilt it needs.

The story ends badly for Semele, who gives up her life in her quest for immortality.

Unfortunately, it ends no better for Zhang, who designed and directed this production, first seen in Beijing and Brussels in 2009, around a Ming Dynasty temple he bought and dismantled outside of Shanghai.

The temple is the most imposing example of a production festooned with Chinese and other Asian references, often completely at odds with the libretto and the music.

On stage, everything and everyone, sumptuously dressed by Han Feng, looks gorgeous, but what we see is too frequently out of sync with the story.

The list of crimes against the plot, characters and logic is a long one, hardly redeemed by a spectacular coup de théâtre in Act III, as Semele sings the opera’s great fireworks aria, “Myself I shall adore.”

The production’s nadir comes as a chorus of Buddhist monks tear off their robes in order to have sex, as part of entertainment that Jupiter organizes for Semele.

Just as bad, later in Act II, is seeing two Sumo wrestlers go at each other as the chorus, now back in their robes, sings, “And to that pitch the eternal accents raise that all appear divine.”

At the end, as further punishment, we are deprived of Handel’s redemptive chorus, in favour of lamenting Semele’s demise.

Zhang tries to tie in Semele’s fate with that of the temple’s final occupant, with the help of bookended video footage. But, like hearing the chorus humming the Communist Internationale as they carry off Semele’s red coffin, it is a head-scratcher.

If you go for the music — and the manifold pleasures of hearing Archibald in full flight — you won’t be disappointed. But go for operatic cohesion, and disappointment awaits.

There will be a special performance on May 23 featuring a cast made up of members from the COC’s Ensemble Studio.


John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300
comments powered by Disqus

Ludwig Van Toronto

Meet Your New Ludwig van Toronto

By Michael Vincent on September 14, 2017

Classical music is evolving, and so have we. Welcome to your new Ludwig van Toronto.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300

RECORD KEEPING | Fairytales, Myths, And Renée Fleming AT Summer Night Concert 2017

By Paul E. Robinson on September 17, 2017

The Schönbrunn Palace provides a magical setting for Renée Fleming at The Summer Night Concert 2017 with the Vienna Philharmonic — conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article

BREAKING | The Globe And Mail Slashing Arts Section

By Jennifer Liu on August 30, 2017

Canada's biggest print resource for the arts is slashing its Life and Arts section. With insight from Robert Harris, music critic at The Globe.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_low_590x300
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700

We have detected that you are using an adblocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we earn by the advertisements is used to manage this website. Please whitelist our website in your adblocking plugin.