Handel aficionados in Philadelphia were lucky this year, with not one, but two excellent renditions of Semele, otherwise rarely performed in America. In April, it was the (surprisingly) first-ever appearance of The English Concert here, a coup by the Annenberg Center, with a cast including the phenomenal Brenda Rae and Elizabeth DeShong. Opera Philadelphia’s third annual September Festival O, presented a staging by James Darrah of the 1744 work, written when Italian opera had become unpopular and Handel, two years post-Messiah yet ever the consummate operatic composer, created something between a sensual opera with oratorio-like choruses and an oratorio with an irreligious plot. Semele and Jupiter are having a passionate affair; he spirits her away as she is about to wed Athamas, with whom her sister Ino is in love, while Juno plots revenge.

Amanda Forsythe (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter) © Steven Pisano
Amanda Forsythe (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter)
© Steven Pisano

Notwithstanding the genius of Handel’s orchestration, the highlight of his creation is the vocal music, fully conveying emotions even when “only” heard in concert. I am delighted to report that every soloist in this version demonstrated full mastery of the composer’s myriad, endlessly inventive florid passages, flinging off embellishments, rapid-fire scales, and generally impressive trills, all also meaningful.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe, making her Opera Philadelphia debut, was truly overwhelming as Semele, producing a mind- and ear-boggling panoply of vocal fireworks including what seemed variations of variations, and clearly enjoying herself! I expected Jupiter-tenor Alek Shrader’s easy high notes, having heard his Candide in June, but did not know his “Baroque” side, easily producing precise and expressive agility. Mezzo Daniela Mack, double-cast as Juno and Ino – logically, as Juno takes over Ino’s image to trick Semele – astonished with her amazingly fast “Hence, Iris, hence away”. The role of Iris gave lovely-voiced soprano Sarah Shafer a chance for some vocal speed, too, as did that of Athamus to countertenor Tim Mead.

Amanda Forsythe (Semele) and Tim Mead (Athamus) © Steven Pisano
Amanda Forsythe (Semele) and Tim Mead (Athamus)
© Steven Pisano

The singers were equally impressive in their lyrical passages: Forsythe’s voice revealed warmth and sheen in “O sleep, why dost thou leave me” while Ino’s plaintive “Turn, hopeless lover,” allowed Mack to show her warm vocal side. Shrader used his sweet timbre to convey a sense of tenderness and awe in the work’s one famous aria, “Where’er you walk”.

Not to be outdone by vocal prowess, everyone’s acting skills made people of their personages, no doubt abetted by this side of Darrah’s direction. Forsythe’s Semele lived a catalog of emotions, even in the midst of difficult vocalism. Mack as Juno was imperious and impatient, barely containing her fury (or not), cajoling as “Ino” with Semele, while conveying vulnerability as the real Ino in Act 1. Shrader was both godlike and human, sure of himself and of Semele’s love but desperately regretting his rash vow to give her anything she desired – it was immortality. Shafer garnered real laughter with her shenanigans, Mead real sympathy with his predicament.

<i>Semele</i> © Steven Pisano
Semele
© Steven Pisano

All this despite the nearly constant presence of four dancers, stunning but too much here. Generally doing pas de deux, trois or quatre, they also hoisted people into the air, including Semele. The chorus danced, too, writhing in excruciating slow motion as mortals or moving in livelier configurations as immortals. To their immense credit and that of chorus master Elizabeth Braden, and despite choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, they sang beautifully.

Another dancer, the exceptional Lindsey Matheis, slithered and stretched in near-contortionist movements, mostly as a body double for Ino (real and fake), but also all over Semele, undeniably fascinating, but like the other four, superfluous. Duets in particular would have been even more affecting if not surrounded by distracting action.

Amanda Forsythe (Semele) © Steven Pisano
Amanda Forsythe (Semele)
© Steven Pisano

Such action was what Darrah and costume designer Sarah Schuessler (on their third Semele) wanted, with scenic and lighting designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, for their concept of Semele as victim of a cult, forced into marriage, then, in Jupiter’s abode, trapped in another kind of cult. Sorry, but the “It has to represent today’s critical view” trend is already old. The opening set, with hideous stage-high dark rags hanging in front and a dreary hodge-podge behind, everyone in long black robes and boots, was the temple of Juno, and what resembled the bottom half of a soft-boiled egg the sacred fire. Thankfully, the rags fell away for the immortal realm, replaced by panels perfect for the superb projections by Adam Larsen, including multiple images of Semele as she sang “Myself I shall adore” and the breezes, trees and flowers described by Jupiter in his paean to her. The immortals were in lightweight pastels, Jupiter in a silvery dressing gown and matching slacks.

Another musical plus was the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra under Gary Thor Wedow, with fine solos by the cello, theorbo, organ and timpani.

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