Händel - Semele

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 27 2009

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production and sets: Zhang Huan. Costumes: Han Feng. Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel. Jupiter: Jeremy Ovenden. Cadmus, King of Thebes/Priest: Nathan Berg. Semele, Daughter of Cadmus: Ying Huang. Juno/Ino, Sister of Semele: Ning Liang. Athamas, a Prince of Boeotia: David Hansen. Somnus: Kurt Gysen. Iris: Sarah Tynan. Les Talens Lyriques. Chorus of La Monnaie.

Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but I wonder if, conversely, unfamiliarity breeds awe. Quite often when "controversial" artists from other media are brought in to direct opera while knowing nothing about it, the result is surprisingly tame. Such was the case with this Brussels production of Semele by Zhang Huan: though he’s known for nudity and bestiality and dressing up in raw meat, once you accepted that it was set in China his staging was remarkably conventional.

As usual these days, it required some reading up beforehand. Zhang bought a Ming temple from a widow whose husband was executed by firing squad after (if I understood correctly) murdering her lover. As it happens, in the temple he (Zhang) found a diary chronicling the husband’s jealousy and drunkenness. It occurred to him that this made the temple an apt setting for Semele, and that if he shipped it lock, stock and barrel (not to mention its owner, the widow, who made several appearances sweeping the stage) to Brussels, the Qi that came with it would lend a special urgency to the production.

Well, it certainly looked gorgeous in the excellent lighting, but as the Sunday Times reviewer rightly concluded (and again, as is often the case when artists are asked to direct): “The visual ideas, while beautiful to look at, [were] undermined by minimal direction and clumsy execution.“

Only occasionally were we reminded that Zhang is a contemporary artist. During the overture we watched a black and white documentary, subtitled in English, about the temple, the family that lived in it and its dismantling and reconstruction in Zhang’s studio in Shanghai. The final still shot gave way to the real thing, with its beams and rafters bare to leave sightlines clear and allow objects to be lifted in and out.

The ancient temple was, understandably, the only set. A bronze bell came down for the opening temple scene and burst into flames not quite as required by the libretto. Jupiter and Semele’s Citheron love-nest saw it overgrown with bamboo for the chorus to fornicate in when not singing. Somnus snoozed on a vast, red, flowery quilt askew on the roof, dreaming of the naked Chinese girl beside him and doubled up by a slowly unfolding inflatable giant. The mirror scene was spectacular: a wall of mirror filled the proscenium from top to bottom and side to side, reflecting La Monnaie’s gaudy, gilded auditorium back at the audience.

The costumes, a mix of Ming-period western with ballooning breeches and ruffs (as in the wonderful Japanese screens in Lisbon’s fine arts museum) and colourful Chinese silks and headdresses, were sumptuous. There were some elements of Chinese theatre: a pantomime horse in act one, a priapic pantomime donkey in the fornication scene, and a long, white dragon, inexpertly handled by European technicans and breathing incense smoke, in whose coils Semele anticlimactically expired. Sumo wrestlers made an incongruous and baffling appearance at one point. A Mongolian singer made another at another. And there was a Mongolian recital out on the square, under a three-legged, copper Buddha statue by Zhang, during the interval. The opera ended with Semele’s death and the chorus “Oh, terror,” followed by an odd humming chorus of the Internationale socialist hymn and, finally, the sound of rain as a series of Zhang’s ash portraits were washed away on video.

The story was not totally out of place in this setting, but I felt all the way through that it would have been better to find an experienced director willing to work in partnership with Zhang to make the singers act and the ideas work (“minimal direction and clumsy execution” is spot-on).

I also agree with most of the Sunday Times reviewer’s take on the performance.

“What might have been an outstanding musical performance - led by Christophe Rousset, one of the world’s outstanding Handelians, and his wonderful period band, Les Talens Lyriques - was compromised by some B-list casting. Ning Liang, one of the most experienced classical singers from China, with a career in the West of more than 25 years behind her, now struggles with the range and bravura of Juno’s fulminations…”

Yes. Hard to imagine her singing Octavian in New York.

“… and the Athamas of the young Australian countertenor David Hansen was barely audible in this medium-sized house.”

Barely audible, yes, but he would have been very good indeed in a smaller place. The old lady next to me also found him strikingly cute, though he was clearly not at ease in tights.

“As Jupiter, the British tenor Jeremy Ovenden sang a stylish, but tonally unalluring, ‘Where E’er You Walk…”

Mmm... I didn't find it all that unalluring; I was glad to hear someone singing relatively well.

“Another Brit, Sarah Tynan, scored a personal triumph with her bright-toned, sparky Iris.”

OK.

“Ying Huang, the Semele, compensated for some less than dazzling coloratura flourishes…”

Yes, every long run on the word “alarm” in “No, no, I’ll take no less” was marred by a deep breath in the middle.

“… with excellent diction - Chinese-trained, she now lives in New York - and much charm.”

Neither of those struck me I’m afraid. With all due respect, Ms Ying was not up to singing Semele on the Brussels stage. And an alto who makes a hash of “Iris, hence away” is about as unnecessary a piece of casting as an Eboli who makes one of “O Don fatale.” So this was, as the reviewer (who might also have mentioned Nathan Berg’s comfortably idiomatic contribution) also wrote, from the musical point of view, Rousset’s Semele.

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