‘Semele’ Looks in the Mirror

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Two seasons ago, the New York City Opera scored a direct hit on opening night with the first New York staging of Richard Strauss’s “Daphne.” Last year, the company began with another Straussian opus, a good, if not spectacular rendition of “Capriccio.” This fall, the company reaches back to that luminous “Daphne,” casting its star, Elizabeth Futral, as that self-involved object of desire, Handel’s Semele, in the opera/oratorio’s first professionally staged performance in town. Would they catch lightning in a bottle once again at the New York State Theater?

There was certainly an opening night feel to this event, as a brass septet serenaded us as we entered the lobby — not Bayreuth perhaps, but really very nice. And it looked as if the singers for this performance were on their way across the plaza to the New York Philharmonic’s black tie opening, since they all came out in formal wear for the first, oratoriostyle scene of the evening.

The pivotal scene in “Semele”occurs when the title character lusts after her own image in a mirror.This production, directed by Stephen Lawless, is oddly imitative of our heroine’s unfortunate — and ultimately fatal — narcissism. The stage business is so overwhelming and self-absorbed that it eventually even runs away with the music.

I was perfectly willing to accept that Semele was Marilyn Monroe and Juno was Jackie Kennedy. I was even willing to overlook the crotch thrusts of the sunglass-wearing secret servicemen. Choreographer Lynne Hockney tested my patience with a good deal of exaggerated gestures and several numbers featuring the twist or the frug (or was it the swim?). But the early 1960s rock rhythms really crossed the line.

This was particularly true in the vocal ornamentation. Ms. Futral abandoned Handel’s stately, measured filigree in favor of a cadence that came straight from bopping at the hop. Even then, I was mildly amused, willing to accept this type of genre-bending as a send-up of classical fioriture, but I would be remiss as a reporter if I did not mention that there was indeed some booing from the upper sections when she concluded her second such journey. Also, the word “silly”was bandied about quite a bit during intermission.

Ms. Futral delivered a generally solid performance, and proved especially impressive in the long mirror scene. She is unflappable as well — while she sang, a giant panel decorated as a magazine cover came crashing down, quite near to where she was standing. Seemingly unfazed, she picked it up and propped it against a wall without missing a beat, earning a well-deserved, although disruptive, ovation.

Vivica Genaux, in the dual role of Ino and Juno (and also Juno disguised as Ino) was strong-voiced and burnished in tone.This is a sound that is pure polished mahogany. She was the most steadfast in resisting the pop influence in her ornamentation. Constance Hauman was excellent as Iris, both vocally and dramatically.

But Robert Breault, despite delivering a rather sweet “Where’er you walk,” had difficulty staying on pitch during his own bouts of ornamentation. Matthew White was a somewhat colorless Athamas, but he is a countertenor who can at least deliver without a noticeable wobble. Among the men, only Sanford Sylvan was excellent in the treble (although he’s a baritone) role of the priest, Cadmus and Somnus. The small pit orchestra was superb as usual, although I must lay at least some of the blame for the clash of musical styles on conductor Antony Walker, who never seemed quite comfortable in either Handelian or Chuck Berry idiom.

What’s next for “Semele?” Well, maybe for the revival, City Opera can cast John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

“Semele” runs until October 4 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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