My husband and I went to see Semele, an opera/ oratorio composed by Handel. We did have the basic story line of Semele, based on the Greco-Roman Mythology, but nothing else. All we knew was that we had never seen this particular opera. The theater was packed, perhaps due to the fact that it was the final performance of this opera. We sat in a thrilling anticipation of the grand beginning of an operatic performance. Soon after the first act began, however, I was very much disoriented by what I saw and heard on the stage.
I have loved Greek Mythology since I was introduced to it as a child in the form of explanations of various constellations in the sky. My father took me to the planetarium when I was a child. As a very young person I was at once fascinated and frightened by an Italian representation of Andromeda rescued by Perseus. In any case, what I am trying to say here is that I was very familiar with the tales full of sex and violence often committed by gods and goddesses. So it was not the lascivious tale of Jupiter and Semele that disoriented me, but it was the voice coming from Athamas, Semele’s betrothed that perplexed me. (Since the singer did a very good job I even wondered if a woman was pretending to be a man.) Athamas was presented as a somewhat nerdy guy with spectacles, but his voice was high like a female voice. At first I could not locate the source of the voice but soon it was clear that it was the voice of Athamas, Semele’s betrothed and Semele’s sister Ino’s beloved. Apparently Handel meant Athamas’ voice to be very high – perhaps to show his less-than-masculine role (Semele, his intended, was whisked away by a god, and he accepted such a situation in a placid manner) or perhaps to create a singing part for his favorite castrato. As it is performed in our modern context, the countertenor/ alto of Athamas voice juxtaposed with the chorus singing “endless pleasure, endless love” repeatedly at the end of the Act I set a tone for the comedy of absurd for me. And this impression, which was reinforced by the huge images of Jupiter, Juno, Semele, Apollo, and Bacchus frequently projected onto the stage curtains (an homage/ ironical reference to the silver screen stardom?) persisted throughout the opera except for a few minutes after Semele’s death from incineration caused by her seeing Jupiter as he actually is, a tremendous energy. The performance was long, lasting 3 and a half hours, but I very much enjoyed the Seattle Opera Production of Handel’s Semele. It was kinky, witty and innovative.