It's amusing to imagine the pitch Handel must have used to convince the presenters of Covent Garden's oratorio concert series for the 1744 Lenten season to back his latest creation. Why not schedule his theatrical treatment of a myth that portrays the head of the pagan gods setting his human mistress up in a pleasure palace? After all, the moral is clearly stated at the end: “Nature to each allots his proper sphere”. Still, you can't send your audience home on a such a grim choral note, so all the more reason to end things with a cheerful ode to the powers of Bacchus!

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter) © Elise Bakketun
Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter)
© Elise Bakketun

In the event, after just a few performances the Covent Garden subscribers somehow couldn't be convinced that Semele was morally improving, even though the text (based on an earlier libretto by William Congreve) was in English and not the Italian of those decadent opera fanciers. Which, alas, discredited this opera-masquerading-as-an-oratorio as far as the latter were concerned. So it was that one of Handel's most delightful scores from his later years was soon consigned to oblivion, only to be rediscovered roughly two centuries later.

But the long-neglected Semele has been making its comeback with a vengeance thanks to the kind of zestfully imaginative production just unveiled by Seattle Opera. Curiously, this brand-new staging at the Handel-starved company – where only two (!) of his operas had previously graced the boards throughout its entire history – comes on the heels of a smaller-scale Semele production last spring presented by Stephen Stubbs' Pacific MusicWorks company. I can't say whether the opening-night audience was in search of moral edification, but they certainly got their money's worth if aesthetic pleasure was the goal.

This Semele has been mostly billed around the star power of mezzo Stephanie Blythe, and she delivered the goods in winning style. Taking on the twin roles of the vindictive goddess Juno and the mortal Ino, Semele's sister, Blythe succeeded in giving a plausibly distinctive coloration to each, which made for particularly wicked fun when the goddess visits her rival in the guise of Ino to seal Semele's fate.

Blythe wasted no opportunity to use her formidable chest voice to amplify Juno’s haughty scorn, adding a sarcastic touch that makes the comic aspects of this tragicomedy sparkle. If her top notes occasionally lose focus, she navigates the terrifying coloratura of “Hence, Iris, away!” with thrilling assurance.

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter) © Elise Bakketun
Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter)
© Elise Bakketun

Brenda Rae triumphed vocally and theatrically in the title role, unafraid to push Semele’s hedonism to sensual extremes and yet still conveying vulnerability in her final, Elsa-like confrontation with her lover-god. She added giddily over-the-top – and pinpoint accurate – ornamentations to “Myself I shall adore” but also floated the most delicate trills and messa di voce notes in her lovely high range.

The chemistry generated by her and Alek Shrader, who recently excelled as Emilio in San Francisco Opera’s Partenope, is another bonus. Whilst Rae’s Semele aspires to the unreachable, Shrader embodies a recognisably human Jupiter in the yearning lyricism of his agile tenor (though at times his phrasing could be uneven). Shrader's “I must with speed amuse her” twinkled with comic charm, and he single-handedly elevated the overall level of pathos with his solo arioso before Semele’s demise.

John del Carlo (Somnus) and Tory Peil (Pasithea) © Elise Bakketun
John del Carlo (Somnus) and Tory Peil (Pasithea)
© Elise Bakketun
Also outstanding was soprano Amanda Forsythe as the perky, Puck-like Iris. Character bass-baritone John Del Carlo (a ubiquitous Bartolo) undertook both Cadmus and, rather more effectively, Somnus – shown here as the owner of an empty, neon-lit nightclub who is coaxed out of pushing the snooze button by Juno’s bribing with the nymph Pasithea (alluring danced by Tory Peil).

As Athamas, the ill-starred intended of Semele, countertenor Randall Scotting sang with passion, but his final scene was cut, which had the effect of making much of the first act (in which Semele is snatched away from her wedding by Jupiter) seem like a McGuffin. The opening in general felt a tad confused as to the theatrical tone it wanted to establish, but the rest of the production flowed flawlessly in Tomer Zvulun’s entertainingly detailed and musically sensitive stage direction. Erhard Rom’s geometrically minimalist set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting incorporated sophisticated projections to conjure lofty mountain views or the music of the spheres. Screens took the place of ancient idols, projecting images of the gods as idealised celebrities.

Vita Tzykun (who has designed for Lady Gaga) contrasted the bleak robes worn by the mortals with quirkily colourful touches for the gods, decking out the retinue of ‘zephyrs’ and Olympian domestics in Krishna-blue outfits. Enhancing the visuals was Donald Byrd’s animated choreography.

Seattle Opera’s Chorus was in peak form for the large role it plays in this score. Handel authority Gary Thor Wedow varied his fleet tempi with beautifully shaped cadences and dramatically apt accentuation. Despite the problems of balance with a reduced orchestra –always a problem when presenting Handel in a house as large as McCaw Hall – the score's energy and grace held sway.