Music lovers in the Seattle area will not want to miss this weekend’s performances of Semele, a joint effort by Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music.
I was lucky to be able to attend one of the rehearsals, where I found myself spellbound by the flow of ideas and inspired rapport between director James Darrah and the cast — all this without a stage or costumes and only harpsichord accompaniment. Semele is a late Handel work (1743) that never fit comfortably into the era’s expectations for either opera or oratorio, but Darrah and company are treating it as the liveliest brand of music theater, full of humor, wit, enchantment, and (literally and figuratively) epiphany.
It’s easy enough to imagine the musical and theatrical potential Handel saw in this material, retooling a libretto more than 30 years old — it includes the work of Alexander Pope — which itself retells the classical myth of Semele and Zeus/Jupiter. The human Semele has a fateful love affair with none other than the king of the gods, triggering the jealousy of his wife. Juno’s plan to avenge herself results in the destruction of Semele as a mortal woman but leads to the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus — a boon for humanity.
Handel knew how to carve into the meat of the mythic matter with this story of human aspirations for the impossible, of divine vulnerability to human emotion, of the power of irrepressible desire. A century later, Wagner noted the archetypal aspects of the tale and its similarities to Elsa’s ill-fated questioning of Lohengrin in another human-meets-transcendent encounter. (Another variant is found in Apuleius’s marvelously elaborate narrative of Cupid and Psyche.)
Seattle has tended to be a Handel-deprived zone for far too long, but Stephen Stubbs — the visionary artistic director of Pacific MusicWorks — is changing the playing field with his musically and theatrically stimulating advocacy of early and baroque composers. An internationally acclaimed musical director and lutenist, Stubbs marries the energies of his early music expertise with an appreciation of cutting-edge stage direction and interdisciplinary artistic creativity.
And his choice of the Los Angeles-based director and visual artist James Darrah bodes well. (Darrah has worked with the likes of Peter Sellars and John Adams, and among his upcoming projects is a collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas next month for the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Peter Grimes.)
During the rehearsal I saw, Darrah was coaching the appealing cast of young artists singing the chorus into how to develop into a major character in their own right rather than a passive, fly-on-the-wall musical presence. The chorus became a visible and dynamic extension of the power play among Semele, Juno, and Jupiter. And far from purveying an arbitrary “concept,” Darrah showed with his sensitivity to the subtexts of Handel’s melody and counterpoint that he commands an intimate understanding of the score and of the way Handel constructs his narrative arc.
It should be fascinating to compare the final results of performance with what will happen on the Seattle Opera stage next February-March, when the director Tomer Zvulun returns for a mainstage production of Semele. Meanwhile, Stubbs is spearheading experiments in smaller-scale productions involving partnerships between different organizations and even with companies across the Northwest — all of which promises to enliven the ecology of Seattle’s art scene, for early music and contemporary composers alike.
If you go: Pacific MusicWorks and the University of Washington School of Music present Handel’s Semele Friday and Saturday, May 16 and 17, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, May 18, at 2:00 pm at UW’s Meany Hall. (Sunday’s matinee performance is presented by the student cover cast.) Tickets at 206.543.4880 or 1.800.859.5342 or here.
(c) 2014 Thomas May All rights reserved.