27/9/09, La Monnaie, Brussels
Handel's opera, directed by a Chinese visual artist, Zhang Huan, trying his hand at opera for the first time. A curious East-West mix which didn't work (because the Eastern elements seemed entirely arbitrary) but which musically wasn't half bad. Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques were excellent, with wonderful colour and pace and tunefulness. Handel can sound bland sometimes, even with period instruments: here he never did.
The Semele (Ying Huang) was a bit dour and dumpy, and out of her depth and shouty-screechy in the dramatic aria towards the end ("No, no I'll take no less") and struggling a bit in "Myself I shall adore". In the latter she wasn't a patch on Carolyn Sampson at the Proms the other day (I watched it again online and it's a truly brilliant performance; though Rosemary Joshua in an exceedingly sexy version done in Aix in the 1990s, which I think was the basis of a version we saw with her at ENO, runs Ms Sampson exceedingly close).
This Semele did contemplative very well, though: "Oh sleep why dost thou leave me?" was beautiful; even better was "Endless pleasure", sung while suspended from a hanging moon at the end of Act 1.
Best of all was Jupiter (Jeremy Ovenden), who sang "Where e'er you walk" better than I've ever heard it, while washing Semele's feet: hairs on the head time (the same went for "Endless pleasure" and "Oh sleep"). And honorary mentions for the father, Iris (Sarah Tynan) and Somnus.
The best of the Oriental interpolations was the set, a genuine 12th(?) century Chinese temple which we saw in a black and white documentary, projected onto the front cloth during the overture, being demolished and then re-erected in the artist's hangar-like studio in Shanghai, while subtitled locals told us its somewhat lurid recent history (someone was executed for plotting a murder) and we met the son of the owner, who hoped for something more modern to impress potential brides.
And then the curtain rose to reveal the very same temple, its wooden framework fitting the stage almost exactly, with massive round wooden columns and even more massive cross-beams. It was an appropriate setting for the opening marriage scene; filled with shrubbery for the scenes in heaven; appeared covered in a great crimson cloth across the roof in which Somnus slept at the start of Act 3.
The costumes were a curious mix of European Renaissance (husband in tights and tunic; Iris in black dress and white ruff) and classical Chinese, for the women especially. The chorus wore orange or red Chinese robes which they discarded to reveal slate blue pyjamas and polka-dot underpants in the orgy as Jupiter and Semele make love.
Other eastern elements: a pantomime donkey at the start (donkeys are apparently associated with peasant weddings in China), which reappeared in the orgy scene with an enormous phallus ( wonder how the mother in the audience with three young kids explained that to the little ones?), and two sumo wrestlers at the end of Act 2. At one point a Mongolian throat-singer entered through the audience, singing unaccompanied, her rills and trills reminiscent of Handel's, and picking up a white chiffon scarf that Semele drops as she is translated to the heavens (a bit like the bride's bouquet, perhaps?). In the final scene there's a white Chinese dragon, and we last see Semele wrapped in its coils, lamenting her fate ("Ah me! too late I now repent").
Finally the conventional happy ending was dropped for a humming chorus of the Internationale as Semele's red coffin is carried off. Much of this was frankly baffling, though it kept one's interest. A helpful gloss was provided by this review in the New Tork Times:
There were some other good bits. Somnus was awoken from sleep in a vast blanket on the roof of the temple, a topless Penthesilea beside him: the pair then fly off (there was a lot of flying, and it was well done). While he sang a huge inflatable doll beside him was gradually blown up... then deflated again.
And "Myself I shall adore" was sung in front of a vast mirror filling the whole stage, reflecting the audience as well as Semele. We liked that, and laughed: about the only moment the audience roused itself as this Sunday matinee. We were a pretty unenthusiastic lot, and there was no applause for even the most finely-sung arias.