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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Semele in a Chinese Shrine

Steven Humes as Cadmus in 2012. Photo: Michael Cooper
By David Hsieh 

An ad appeared in London’s Daily Post on January 9, 1744: “By Particular Desire, Mr. Handel proposes to Perform, by Subscription, Twelve Times during next Lent, and engages to play two New Performances (and some of his former Oratorios, if Time will permit).”

Mr. Handel, was, of course, George Frideric Handel, the most famous opera composer and impresario in London then. But in 1744, his fortune was dwindling. Audience taste had turned from Italian to English opera and oratorio; the rival Opera of the Nobility was siphoning the aristocratic patronage he had enjoyed for the past 30 years. The ad was his attempt to establish a subscription-based model to put on shows.

Despite everything (he had a minor stroke the previous year), Handel had reason to be optimistic. He had enjoyed a string of successes in the genre after 1740, including L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; Samson; and the Messiah. Within the span of two months after the ad, he put on Semele and Joseph and his Brethren at Covent Garden.

Of the two, Semele was the more curious. Based on an existing opera libretto by William Congreve, Handel reduced recitatives, replaced some arias, and added substantial texts for the chorus so it could be performed “after the manner of an Oratorio.” Perhaps Handel was hoping to capture both the opera and oratorio audiences. If so, they weren’t buying it. And after another attempt at Hercules, Handel largely abandoned the secular oratorio form. Semele was never performed again in his lifetime.

In the Greek myth, Semele (daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes) is betrothed to Athamas, Prince of Boeotia, whom her sister Ino loves. However, Semele is already having a secret affair with Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus), the sun god. And who wants a prince when you can have a god? So she bolts from the wedding altar presided over by Juno (Jupiter’s wife) and is taken to Jupiter’s hideaway. Humiliated, Juno seeks revenge. With the help of Somnus, the sleeping god, Juno gains access to Jupiter’s palace. She disguises herself as Ino and presents a magic mirror to Semele, who falls in love with her own reflection (she sings the bravura aria “Myself I shall adore”). Believing she deserves more, Semele demands to see Jupiter in his true form, which leads to a disastrous end.

Seizing on the very human theme of aspiring to more than one is given, Semele has retaken opera stages in the 21st century. In a 2006 New York City Opera production, Stephen Lawless refashioned the main characters after Marilyn Monroe/John and Jackie Kennedy. Robert Carsen’s production for English National Opera (later remounted for Cecilia Bartoli at Zurich Opera) portrayed Semele as an up-and-comer who threatened the British royal establishment. Enter Zhang Huan, a prominent Chinese performance and visual artist whose 2009 production for Belgium’s La Monnaie comes to BAM in March via the Canadian Opera Company.

Jane Archibald as Semele. Photo: Gary Beechey
Zhang stages the opera in an authentic 450-year-old Chinese family shrine and mixes images of East, West, old, and modern. Sumo wrestlers, Buddhist monks, an inflatable puppet, an overtly aroused donkey, and a Chinese dragon vie for space with soloists dressed in costumes referencing Chinese peasants and 18th-century European courts. But his most daring move is probably the addition of a documentary “prelude” which tells the story of the shrine and its owners.

According to Zhang, the shrine was his “doorway” into the world of Semele and Handel. In an interview with China’s Phoenix TV, he said he was reluctant to stage the work when first approached because he knew nothing about opera. But it all changed when he found the shrine in a village while researching an art installation. Among the artifacts was a diary left by its former owner, who, in the early 20th century, had killed his unfaithful wife. “The root of human disaster is desire,” said Zhang. “Both Semele and the shrine owner are entangled in passion, jealousy, death. So I want to tell the stories of this old Chinese house as well as of Semele.”

Zhang Huan’s works have always been a physical manifestation of the uncertain relations he has with the societies in which he lives: chained to the ceiling as blood was drawn; sitting in a fly-swarmed outhouse, his body covered in honey and fish oil (in the wake of the June 4, 1989 Beijing protests); lying naked on a bed of ice in the courtyard of PS 1 in 1998, as a new immigrant in New York. Large-scale sculptures that he started since he moved back to China and set up a mega studio in Shanghai were seen at Storm King Art Center last year. Semele is no exception. “I want to tell the story of our time,” said Zhang. “As a contemporary artist, I have to reflect the people and their lives and the environment they are in. Otherwise there is no point for me to do it.”

Semele will be at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on Mar 4, 6, 8, & 10.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM and the US correspondent of Opera China.

Reprinted from Feb 2015 BAMbill.

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