March 8th, 2009

Florentine Opera, "Semele"

On Sunday, March 1, we went to the Pabst Theater for the Florentine Opera's production of Semele by George Frideric Handel, and had a wonderful time. The lead singers, notably Jennifer Aylmer as Semele, Robert Breault as Jupiter (and Apollo in the show we saw), and Sandra Piques Eddy in the dual role of Juno and Ino, sang wonderfully; the orchestra, under conductor Jane Glover was note perfect, and the opera Chorus (master Scott S. Stewart) was flawless in song as well as providing lively stage action. Indeed, the staging was one of the most remarkable features of the performance.

Things started off very plainly, almost looking like a concert performance. Four principals, Aylmer; Eddy as her sister Ino; Jason Abrams as Semele's intended husband, Athamas; and Jason Hardy as Cadmus, her father, sat on chairs at the front of the stage with the formally dressed chorus ranked behind. It soom transpired that this was to be the wedding of Semele and Athamas, which is not a happy occaision since Semele prefers her lover, Jupiter, and Ino wants Athamas for herself.  Nevertheless, the wedding is set to proceed having favorable omens from Juno, patroness of marriage. However, things come to a halt when lightning flashes and a storm ensues, giving unmistakable sign of Jupiter's displeasure. At this point, the matte groundsheet on the stage was pulled back revealing a mirror-polished floor which gave the initial impression of pavement awash in rain.

This was the first of many effects involving the floor and a rear-pojection scrim that formed the back of the stage. From our position in the gallery, the combination of rear-projections and floor reflections made it appear at times that Semele was reclining on a cloud floating in the sky, or that the palace where she dallies with Jupiter is drifting in starry space.

After the aborted wedding, Jupiter carries off Semele. She appears in a vision to the distraught guests in order to reassure them, and, as she sings raptuously of her love with Jupiter, the chorus is overcome with amorous delight.

In the second act, we see the jealous Juno plotting with Iris, goddess of the dawn (Greer Davis-Brown) who serves her as spy and scout, to bring about the upstart Semele's downfall, which will involve fooling her into demanding of Jupiter that he appear to her in all his true godly aspect, which she believes will make her immortal and allow her to become Queen of Olympus. Instead, the glory of the god is too great for mortal flesh to bear, and she will be destroyed. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Semele enjoy their affair at the parisdical mountain top hideaway he has created here. (The famous song, "Where You Walk" occurs here, and we all agreed that we have never heard it better done.)

With the collusion of Somnus, god of Sleep, and Morpheus, god of Dreams, Juno brings her plan to fruition. Although much of the singing and action to this point has been humorous, Jupiter's sorrow at Semele's impending death, which his holy oath to her makes him powerless to avert, and Semele's dying song, are genuinely poigniant.

Nevertheless, there is a "happy ending" as Apollo appears to the mortals and reveals that Semele's child by Jupiter will be Bacchus, who will bring to the world a power "even greater than love itself". Bottles of wine are handed out as it is also announced that Ino shall have Athamas for her husband. Athamas pronounces himself satisified, but seems to take great pleasure in consoling himself with the gift of wine as the chorus sings a joyful finale.

In addition to the staging, costumes acquired from the Scottish Opera added clever bits, particularly in Juno's panniered gown of peacock feathers, Iris' skirt with it's reflective lining, and the chorus costumes which made it possible to change from somberly clothed wedding guests to white-clad joyful spirits in full view of the audience. The direction also made wry use of theatrical conventions from Handel's day: both Semele and Iris are flown in on wires, and Jupiter tosses away his hat only to have it spiral up into the flies out of the way.

All in all, the production was simply beautiful and fun. It was well received by audience and critics, which gives us hope that we might be favored with some more baroque opera in the furture.

UWM Theater, "Oedipus Rex"

Wednesday the 4th, we went to the Peck School of the Arts theatre to see UW-Milwaukee's production of Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, in an excellent translation by Steven Berg and Diskin Clay. This version struck a nice balance between declamatory style and modern language so that neither one became obtrusive. The paly retained its power and portent, but the words flowed easily from the cast's tongues.

One thing that was pointless about the production was the setting in the "new Thebes" of 2300, supposedly a post-Apocalytic time when humanity has fallen back to bronze-age technology and reverted to the worship of the old gods, according to the production notes. It was just as well that there was nothing discernible in this conceit in the actual production, and one would not have been aware of it at all if one had not read the program.

The play opens with a priestess (Elsa Gonzalez) invoking the gods while chorus members drum and dance estatically. Oedipus, King of Thebes (Andrew Edwin Voss), appears and speaks to the people asking how he can help them deal with the drought, plague, and other calamaties that are besetting the city. His brother-in-law, Kreon (Rich Gillard), returns from the oracle at Delphi with the news that Apollo has cursed the city because it harbors the murderer of the old King, Lias.  Oedipus vows that he will uncover the murderer and pronounces a dreadful anathema against the killer, not realizing that he himself is the guilty party.  He summons the seer Terisias (David R. Weaver, Sr.), who tells him that he is the man, but Oedipus does not believe it and, revealing his violent temper, accuses Terisias of parroting lies given him by Kreon. The offended prophet puzzles Oedipus with crypric remarks about his identity, echoes back Oedipus' curses upon him, and departs.

However, once his curiosity is aroused, Oedipus cannot resist worrying at the mysteries of Lias' murder and his own background, until the hideous revelation that the twin questions are really one, and that, although he strove to avoid the prophecies, he has in fact, killed his own father, married his mother, and sired misbegotten children upon her. The fact that all this was foreordained, and done with neither intention or knowlege, does not matter, so deep are the tabboos against parricide and incest.  Although the story is old and well known, tears still came to my eyes as the play winds to its tragic conclusion, and the people of Thebes lament the loss of their King, who is now a blinded beggar.

Director Tony Horne gave us an excellent, vital production of this venerable masterpiece. The chorus was rigorously drilled, tossing lines from one to the other, then all speaking in clear unison, as they flitted from side to side of the stage and reformed like a flock of birds in flight.

Oedipus has a long role, and I initially thought that Voss' declamatory delivery would become tedious, but as he warmed up and the script called for more and varied emotion, we got more warmth and flexibility, building to Oedipus angry outburst against Kreon, and his later devastion at the play's climax. He was very well supported by Abbey Starr White as Jocasta, Rich Gillard as the faithful Kreon, and David R. Weaver, Sr. as Terisias. An excellent show all told, and very well worth seeing.