Roman mythology bumps into Buddhism, not always comfortably, in Zhang Huan’s production of Handel’s Semele at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Exquisite, colorful, brocade costumes by Han Feng highlighted this production that was first seen at Brussels’ La Monnaie and later traveled to the Canadian Opera Company (which has brought it to Brooklyn).

Jane Archibald (Semele) © Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos
Jane Archibald (Semele)
© Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos

The set consists of a 450 year old Chinese Temple – not a model or facsimile thereof, mind you, but the actual temple – that has been taken apart and reassembled (all 17 tons of it). Zhang, a well-known artist-in-many-fields, saved the temple from destruction for his concept. In an opening film, played against the overture to the opera, we learn of the couple who lived in the Temple many decades ago, whose lives and deaths involved infidelity and revenge: I guess that's Handel’s opera, which is a tale of Juno’s revenge against Semele, a mortal who is having a torrid affair with her husband, Jupiter. Semele eventually demands that Jupiter come to her not in his human form but in his god-form, in all his power. He agrees reluctantly, and Semele gets incinerated.

But let’s face it, it stretches things a bit. Sex and revenge are the similarities, but I’m not certain that turning Semele into a broad sex comedy does it any favors: The chorus is dressed as Buddhist monks, but I guess since lust and animals are somehow related in Buddhist thinking, adding a fake donkey with an erection makes sense. Orgies take place in the background. Juno is portrayed as camp and funny; Jupiter, a sort of rock star, has flowing blond locks and sports, at times, huge wings (three of them, I think); Athamas, Semele’s jilted beloved is not only foppish, but loses one of his arias and sings the other while caressing the donkey’s rear end. Oh yes – a pair of Sumo wrestlers entertains us in the last act. So much of it doesn’t make sense that one gives up after a while and shrugged shoulders give way to sheer entertainment. Near the opera’s final scene, when Jupiter is telling Semele to be wary of him in his entire godhood, a long paper dragon is carried on stage. It’s an odd, messy, irrational concept with just enough truth in it. I wonder if Zhang meant it to be as funny as it is. It's certainly not boring. Somnus’ appearance, atop a roof adorned with a gigantic, reposing blow-up doll, seals the deal – this is genuinely entertaining, even if it isn’t quite Handel’s Semele.

Katherine Whyte (Iris), Hilary Summers (Juno) and Kyle Ketelsen (Somnus) © Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos
Katherine Whyte (Iris), Hilary Summers (Juno) and Kyle Ketelsen (Somnus)
© Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos

There was nothing to criticize on the musical side of the evening. Christopher Moulds led a reduced Canadian Opera Company orchestra in an ideally paced, well played, energetic performance. There were several cuts, at Zhang’s suggestion, including the final upbeat chorus; he wanted the opera to end with the chorus mourning Semele (so much for the humor). Moulds supported the singers adroitly with great understanding. To follow and lead the magnificent, vocally agile Jane Archibald in the title role, with her arias full of wild roulades, endless breaths and exciting (interpolated) high notes must have been an act of perfect symbiosis. Archibald looked and acted as brilliantly as she sang. One could believe the chemistry between her and Colin Ainsworth’s smoothly sung, handsome Jupiter.

Contralto Hilary Summers sang the manipulative, nasty Juno and Ino, Semele’s complicit-in-her-downfall sister, with a bit of hoarseness in the middle, but marvelous, booming low notes, and cutting high ones. She dispatched rapid coloratura easily and altered her tone for each role. One wishes countertenor Lawrence Zazzo had been given more of Athamus’ music, and Katherine Whyte’s Iris was simply lovely. Doing double duty as Cadmus, Semele’s father, and Somnus, the god of sleep, bass Kyle Ketelsen was excellent.

Byamba Ulambayar and Americus Abesamis © Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos
Byamba Ulambayar and Americus Abesamis
© Jack Vartoogian | frontrowphotos

Oh yes – a Tibetan throat singer/chanter named Amchok Gompo Dhonup walked down the aisle of the opera house in mid-Act II and offered a song about a girl who gets swept away by a bird. Maybe it had three wings – yet another parallel.

****1