Last night my sister gave me her ticket for the opening night of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Semele.
On the surface it’s a pretty boring opera with a traditional Greek plot line. Semele (Jane Archibold) is to marry Athamas (Anthony Roth Costanzo), but she’s in love with Jupiter (William Burden). Ino (Allyson McHardy), Semele’s sister, is in love with Athamas. Luckily for them both, Jupiter whisks Semele away to a palace to be his mistress. Juno, Jupiter’s wife (also played by Allyson McHardy), is inherently jealous and plots to destroy Semele with the help of her adorable sidekick Iris (Katherine Whyte) and Somnus (Steven Humes) the God of sleep. Juno succeeds. Semele dies. Too much harpsichord. Blah blah blah.
But this production is slightly different. Swap out the Greek for Chinese, and things get more… interesting.
The big hype around this particular production is the set: A 450 year old Chinese temple. Thanks to the director, Zhang Huan, this Ming Dynasty temple was disassembled and shipped to the Four Seasons Centre and re-built. Better yet, the previous owner of the temple, Fang Jixin, was executed by firing squad for murdering his wife’s lover. It’s a beautiful set. And the opera begins with a film explaining its history as the overture plays.
Aside from the short documentary during the overture, I knew I was in for quite the ride the minute the “castrato”, or counter tenor as I suspect he still has his testicles in tact, began singing. Athamas shrieked about Hyman and torches while prancing around the stage swooshing his cape, spinning around like a little girl in a new party dress. His high-pitched, desperate-for-sex wails were, in a word, unbearable. Though, every so often he’d hit a lower note, and his voice was quite beautiful. Not so much an octave up. Usually castrati elicit the tones akin to young choir boys, but this guy was a little closer to The Darkness. Now, I’m not certain, but I think this was intended to make you hate the guy. Either way, I hated the guy. And then hate melted to pity once he started to grope the horse’s ass. Yeah, he molested the wedding horse cos his fiancé was rebuking his advances. I guess you take what you can get.
I wanna talk more about this horse. In the past, COC productions are usually either excessively minimalist and angular with some attempt at modern artistic flare (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t), or opulent and traditional (opulence always works, mostly because I am a great appreciator of all things shiny). This production, however, felt like it was a high school play put on by a fifteen year old boy with an unlimited budget and access to exceptional talent. It’s like that episode of Futurama where Melllvar kidnaps the cast of Star Trek and lives out his sci-fi fantasies, but with COC’s Semele it’s sex instead of sci-fi. Right back to the horse. It’s two people in a horse costume a la pantomime. Which I think is just WONDERFUL. It dances! It twitches when it’s ass is being grabbed! It’s a two person horse costume! What more could you ask for?
After the wedding falls apart due to Jupiter rescuing Semele, Semele appears mid-air hanging from two wires. In spite of her supremely beautiful voice, I couldn’t help staring, aghast, at the awkward wires supporting her flight. It just looked awful. Perhaps it was my angle, perhaps it was the spot light, but the wires seemed more visible than the soprano. It was at that point the production downgraded itself set-wise from high school to junior high. I could almost see the stereotypical outcast pulling the ropes back stage keeping Semele aloft. You’re almost hoping for a Hindenberg style mishap, after all, she is to be consumed by flames in the end.
The first Act ends on a surprising artistic and compelling note. A Chinese singer fills the theatre with beautiful tones, and slowly walks across the stage, singing his refrains. It’s so beautiful that you briefly forget about the castrato, the pantomime horse and the wires.
Act Two begins with Juno angry and swearing vengeance after Iris, almost too gleefully, explains Semele’s blissful situation in, what I have come to refer as, the sex palace. Don’t mess with a jealous God yo. It’ll just end badly. Juno huffs off with Iris and the curtain raises to reveal the sex palace. It’s dressed up as a grove. The set itself is striking with the old temple and an abundance of greenery. Semele and Jupiter sweetly swoon at each other, their voices are stellar. The swooning gets more intense as Jupiter begins to disrobe Semele and thoroughly manhandles her body. The chorus, dressed as Buddhist monks joins them on stage, and with them returns the horse! The horse is in a new costume, this time a Chinese print, rather than plain red, and it has a huge erect horse penis.
Let me say this again.
The horse has a giant erect penis, a cock, if you will.
The monks start banging the horse. The horse starts banging the monks. The monks start disrobing, into what look like dirty gym clothes (a striking contrast to the more tradition and elaborate Chinese silks and robes), and begin to have sex in all kinds of positions. Basically there is a lot of simulated sex going on on stage. And to be honest I forget what happens next, because I was too distracted by the giant horse cock. The programme says Jupiter summons Semele’s sister Ino to the sex palace so they can hang out, thus distracting Semele from her desire to become immortal (her eventual downfall).
OH WAIT, I forgot about the Sumo wrestlers. At some point after the orgy two Sumo wrestlers come out, and wrestle. And it’s AMAZING. I’ve never seen Sumo wrestling live before. They stomp and balance on one leg, they kick, and then bing bang bam they wrestle, pushing and shoving and falling in tangled mass balls of skin. After one finally submits to the other, they join hands and skip off backstage through the flora.
After intermission the theatre was less full than before intermission, surprising absolutely no one.
Act three is staged on the roof of the temple. Juno and Iris enlist Somnus in their plot to destroy Semele. He agrees, only because Juno mentions the name of his love (which I forget, but she’s sitting topless next to him on the roof – so I’m not sure how this became a turning point in his decision to help out Juno). Behind Somnus and his topless lover sits a huge inflatable doll, that slowly inflates throughout the scene. The rhythm of the air inflating the doll mimics the rhythm of the music, so as wacky as it is, it actually worked rather well. Though when I first saw the inflatable doll, I thought that perhaps someone would end up banging it. This was not the case. And to be honest, after what happened in the first half, I was a little disappointed.
Actually, after the first half the final act is a little disappointing gimmick-wise. There’s a huge mirror used that reflects the entire audience, and more interestingly, the orchestra and conductor, which is visually quite stunning. And there’s a beautifully crafted white Chinese dragon that moves around the stage, representing Jupiter’s true form. But Semele’s death lacks any fire. And by fire I literally mean fire. I was hoping for flames and smoke and bangs and sparks! But rather she is just wrapped up and consumed by the dragon which, if it weren’t for all the ridiculousness of the first two acts, would be exquisite. But instead it was lack-lustre.
What I will give the third act, and what really is important when it comes to opera, is that it includes the majority of Jane Archibald’s phenomenal vocal work. Her voice is incredible and shines throughout, and was met with loud applause and several shouts of “Brava!”. And this appreciation was shown again during curtain call. The talent was on form throughout.
If you’re unsure about opera, maybe this is the one for you. It has a little bit of everything: Sumo wrestlers, a horse with a giant penis, monks having sex, boobs, a soprano with a truly magnificent voice. Seriously, it has everything. Everything to the point where it feels like you’re on a date with a guy who REALLY wants to impress you and pulls out all the stops to make sure there isn’t a single boring moment, filling the lulls with Sumo wrestlers.
Oh! And one of the bass players in the orchestra looks just like Tobias Funke. This opera REALLY does have everything.
This production may not be for everyone, but it definitely proves that the COC found its balls.
(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)