Pittsburgh Opera is wrapping its season with an innovative spin on Handel’s Semele, a company first in more ways than one. The work, variously described as a musical drama, “after the manner of an oratorio,” and eventually an opera, was first heard at Covent Garden, London – in concert form – in February 1744. Six performances that year were the only ones to take place in the composer’s lifetime. The plot ranks with the most absurd the world of opera has to offer, so full of love triangles and gods comingling with common mortals that giving it Kristine McIntyre’s “Roaring Twenties Art Deco” makeover does no serious harm. And it can be said at once that with set designs by Carey Xu, lighting designs by Todd Nonn, and projection designs by Lawrence Shea, that the performing space at the company’s headquarters has never looked so large or effectively utilized. Jason Bray’s costume designs added a great deal of brilliance to the picture.
The musical cuts were sizable and sometimes regrettable, with the choruses necessarily omitted, but for the most part, enough of the work was heard to make for a pleasant evening of listening that passed all too quickly. Antony Walker conducted the reduced orchestration with his customary skill and keen insight, and the instrumentalists were joined by several players from Chatham Baroque to lend additional authenticity to the accompaniment. Andrew Fouts (violin), Scott Pauley (theorbo) and Patricia Halverson (viola da gamba) were the visiting artists, while the company’s own James Lesniak manned the harpsichord, all to great effect.
Semele (Véronique Filloux) is less than enthusiastic about the thought of marrying Athamas (Yazid Gray, right), which h er father Cadmus (Jeremy Harr, left) has arranged
Véronique Filloux, in the title role, has a part that fits her beautifully fresh soprano perfectly. In “Sleep, why dost thou leave me,” one of the best known pieces from the work, she was at her best, but the strength and flexibility of her voice were on full display throughout the evening.She acted the role with charming versatility. Much was expected of newcomer Aaron Crouch, and the tenor didn’t disappoint. He sang the role of Jove with a voice of much warmth, color and dexterity, and was every inch the king of the gods in his composure. It’s a great pleasure to know he’ll be joining the company as a Resident Artist next season, and that we haven’t heard the last of him.
Athamas (Yazid Gray) and Ino, Semele’s sister (Madeline Ehlinger), who is in love with him
Handel’s music gives Maire Therese Carmack excellent opportunities to display her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. She made the most of them all, and cut a dazzlingly grand operatic picture in her brilliant costume. She acted the part of Juno with a perfect balance of comedy and the high dudgeon befitting a goddess scorned. Madeline Ehlinger, as Ino, again gave a lovely exhibition of her pure soprano tones, both in solo and concerted moments. Baritone Yazid Gray, whose rich, warm voice grows more appealing with each acquaintance, sang the role of Athamas – quite an innovation, since Handel intended the role for an alto, or castrato, and it’s usually taken by countertenors in modern performances. Bass Jeremy Harr sang the roles of Cadmus and Somnus, adapting his acting to each, and sang with the profound and resonant voice we haven’t heard since autumn. This singer is probably the one I’d most like to hear and see “unmasked.”
Juno (Maire Therese Carmack) gives orders to Iris (Meghan DeWald)
Meghan DeWald sang the small part of Iris, and was noted on the program as making her debut with the company, but I seem to remember a singer with the same name appearing as a “handmaiden” the last time Turandot was staged. In any event, she sang the music allotted to the part brightly, and displayed a flare for comedy. But for anyone in the audience who hadn’t heard her nail leading roles in Richard Strauss works done by Pittsburgh Festival Opera in recent summers, they couldn’t know what a dynamic soprano she has at her command when she has music she can sink her teeth into. Hopefully we’ll hear more of her in the near future.
Somnus, the God of Sleep (Jeremy Harr) makes a deal with Juno (Maire Therese Carmack)
And I hope even more that in the near future we’ll see the singers’ faces at least when they take their final bows. The traditional hand-in-hand parade across the stage is missed as it is; but not seeing the beaming smiles as the miniature audiences do their best to create as much applause as possible is a pandemic blight that is downright disheartening to the singers and their auditors alike.
Jove (Aaron Crouch) tries to talk Semele (Véronique Filloux) out of the request she’s made of him
As has been advertised, the remaining performances are sold out, but you still have time to register for the free live stream of Friday night’s show by visiting Pittsburgh Opera. You can also find a wealth of links to interviews with the talent behind the production, detailed information about the opera and much more.
The Artistic Team for Semele –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Kristine McIntyre; Set Designer, Carey Xu; Costume Designer, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Projection Designer, Lawrence Shea; Stage Manager, Alex W. Seidel; Wig Artisan, Nicole Pagano; Assistant Stage Managers, Adrienne Wells and Margaret Shumate; Assistant Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Director of Musical Studies/Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak. NOTE: Glenn Lewis will conduct the May 18 and 20 performances.
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera