Sunday, 27 May 2012

Toronto - A very creative Semele

We travelled to an amazing world of opera love and passion taking place in the restored ruins of a 16th century Chinese temple, amidst dazzling stage effects and playing to the strains of the baroque music of Handel's Semele at the Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera Company.

I was awestruck by the many creative ways the temple on stage was transformed and wish I was allowed to take photos of each of the scenes.  Two particularly memorable scenes took place on the roof of the temple.  One was Semele singing on the roof with a moon behind her and eventually taking off with the moon - a very recognizably Chinese myth.  The other was Somnus, the god of sleep, waking up on a gigantic red quilt spread out on the temple roof with a sleeping balloon giant beside him.  Then to the audience's surprise, a nymph emerged out of the red quilt.  It was awesome!  Yet another scene has a whole mirrored wall on stage as a backdrop for the aria "Myself I shall adore, if I persist in gazing" - it provides a giant reflection of the orchestra and the audience.  Dazzling!  You can go to the COC website to see more scenes. 

The costumes by Han Feng were stunning - a rich blend of Asian and baroque aesthetics with some Hellenistic flavour persisting throughout the opera.   Other than her very Asian marital costume in the first scene, Semele wore flowing Greek goddess gowns throughout.  There were ethereal scenes with haunting arias by the gorgeous soprano Jane Archibald as Semele.  In marked contrast, there were rowdy scenes which included one with riotous sexual romps on the temple grounds with the strains of the familiar Handel oratorio music vigorously playing in the background.  It was the sacred and the profane all in one!  

This production of the mythical story, under the bold direction of Chinese artist Zhang Huan (previously staged in Brussels and China) is hugely sardonic, heavy on stage machinery but also richly creative.  He took out the last scene with the triumphant chorus, choosing to end the story with the chorus' lament of Semele's death.  The opera began and ended with a person sweeping ashes off the floor of the temple, attributed to Zhang Huan's buddhist belief in the impermanence of all things.  Critics didn't like the loss of the last chorus, but a recording of it was played as the audience exit the theatre.  I could live with that - given how memorable the rest of the opera was.

The final bow 

I share below some of the photos of the Four Seasons Centre which I took when I first visited it during its Open House, June 2006:
The Four Seasons Centre atrium

The glass staircase

The hall with perfect acoustics.  If you're visiting Toronto, it's worth getting a ticket just to hear the hall.
Outside the hall

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