George Frederic Handel, February 23, 1685 – April 14, 1759
If Artistic Director Joel Revzen’s intention in 2006 is to give his Arizona Opera Company an operatic face-lift and move it into the national spotlight, he has succeeded handsomely. This was the first time the opera company delved into the world of Baroque Opera and from the viewpoint of vocal accomplishments and visual innovations, Revzen made the right choices. With his production team and in his light-handed musical approach to George Frideric Handel’s secular oratorio, he turned Semele into a full blown operatic work.
And it seemed as if Director Chas Rader-Shieber found the right combination of drollery and heartfelt sentiment in Handel’s opera along with Set and Costume Designer David Zinn and Lighting Designer Lonore Doxsee: all three contributed to a delightful and rewarding evening at the opera. But the production, while certainly pleasing to the eye, paid the highest tribute to Handel with the thoughtful and well-rehearsed musical values Revzen instilled in his merry band of talented singers.
First off, Revzen pulled off one of the best operatic feats in regional opera by getting world-renowned mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe to not only sing the dual roles of Ino, Semele’s loyal sister and Juno, Jupiter’s vengeful queen, but to appear in all seven performances, three in Tucson and four in Phoenix. While the rest of the cast was up to the vocal challenges Handel asks of them, it was apparent that Blythe was the drawing card and, oh ye gods, how she performed. Her full-bodied voice projected evenly up and down the scale and her characterizations were rich in detail. As Ino,she was shy and reticent, not revealing her hidden love for Athamas, who is Semele’s intended. And on her first appearance as Juno, Blythe opened the voice to almost full throttle in expressing her anger on learning of hubby’s amorous fascination with Semele. Blythe, who candidly does not have a lithe, willowy physique, still moved around the stage effortlessly: with each of her movements in tune with the music, she was able to give value to every one of Rader-Shieber’s stage directions. She was not only a joy to listen to and watch, but in the two performances on the 20th and 22nd, her vocal apparatus was totally solid. What a remarkably talented artist!
But Blythe was not alone in maintaining such high vocal standards, for Lisa Saffer as Semele and countertenor David Walker as Athamas kept Handel’s musical story of love between the gods and mortals on an even keel, helping to create a rewarding ensemble which fulfilled Handel’s musical intentions admirably.
Saffer, looking every bit the eye candy which provoked Jupiter’s lust, was able to keep her showy and difficult music so well in sync with her deliciously pouty and spoiled portrayal that she made the strong vocal demands Handel invented for her seem easy and natural. And better yet, her Semele was quite beautifully sung. In fact, Semele was the only role that was double cast with Saffer sharing the boards with Nathalie Paulin in alternate performances.
And it was another first for Arizona Opera to have countertenor David Walker on hand. It was Tucson audiences’ first exposure to this unusual vocal category, and they seemed to accept their new adventure with typical Tucsonan aplomb. It is difficult to describe a countertenor’s voice to those preparing to hear it for the first time. To some it might sound like a mezzo soprano and to others a soprano with masculine overtones. Whatever you call it, Walker won over the audience with his vocal ease and a comfortable acting style. His Athamas was a guy caught between two dames who were pulling him in different romantic directions, and the countertenor’s stage presence clearly demonstrated his character’s dilemma with a vocal production that carried through the house. His strong top showed Athamas was not going to be pushed around; yet, as a result of his director’s easy comedic style, Walker also showed his lighter side.
Filling out the ensemble was soprano Heather Buck as Iris, Juno’s attendant, who came off more like the Queen’s sidekick, playing up her flirtatious side as she attended to her official duties. Her straight forward, well-schooled approach to her music added even more strength to the performance. In the dual roles of Cadmus, King of Thebes and the god Somnus, bass John Cheek proved only adequate as the King, but gave his sleeping god Somnus just the right touches of vocal acting and comedic timing to offset Juno’s determined efforts to get him to aid her in tricking Semele into thinking her mortal beauty is supreme. Along with Buck’s slightly daffy takes on Cheek’s interactions with Blythe, the three performers played out one of the best scenes in the opera.
The production certainly would not have worked without Rader-Shieber’s sly nudging and gentle tweaking of playwright William Congreve’s libretto from which Handel culled the opera’s best moments.
While Rader-Shieber playfully moved his cast around David Zinn’s set to take full advantage of the designer’s audacious pink sofas, bright orange flowers and hanging panels, elaborate with heavily mascaraed eyes-think Andy Warhol 1980’s-the director never allowed his stage business to overshadow the opera production’s humorous intent. The best example of this was the scene where Semele, in self-absorbed fascination, gazes lovingly at her image in mirrors that grew in size as her aria, “Myself I shall adore,” grew in self-adoration, surrounded herself with six formally frocked gentlemen who adoringly circled her every move. This not only proved witty, but was made even funnier by its restraint.
However, there may have been a downside to Revzen’s artistic decision to cut the choruses, ten in number, from his production. In the full score, the chorus plays an important role in the main characters’ responses to the opera’s joys and sorrows. It could be argued by Handel purists that their omission left an incomplete feeling to the opera. But when measured against the Arizona Opera’s high vocal standards and imaginative production values, the company succeeded in capturing in Semele scenes that flowed so effortlessly from one to the other, any doubts about Revzen’s decision to do away with the choruses may easily be washed away.