Ancient mythology derives considerable power from showing the conflicts when gods become emotionally involved with humans. On the day of her wedding to Prince Athamas, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes, has cold feet. Everyone in her family thinks Athamas is an excellent match, but Semele is secretly in love with Jupiter, and he with her. When the ceremony begins at the Temple of Juno, Jupiter sends a tempest to extinguish the sacrificial fires and scare the hell out of everyone present.
This prologue would be enough excitement for the whole opening act of an ordinary opera. In Handel’s Semele, which Opera Santa Barbara will perform this Friday and Sunday, January 14 and 16, at the Lobero, things are barely getting started. In the smoky darkness of the abandoned temple, Semele’s sister, Ino, confesses her love to Athamas. Moments later, Cadmus enters with some shocking news. Semele has been abducted by a giant eagle, “on purple wings descending,” and not only that, she’s thrilled about it. As Jupiter in eagle form hoists her into the heavens, Semele lets everyone know how she feels, calling out, “Endless pleasure, endless love, Semele enjoys above.”
It’s easy to see why Semele has become the Handel opera most frequently staged for contemporary audiences, yet there’s more to its popularity than just the extravagant plot. Speaking with Kostis Protopapas, Artistic and General Director of Opera Santa Barbara, about the work last week, I learned how Semele looks forward toward the future of opera rather than remaining set in the stylistic conventions of the Baroque. “It’s unusual for a Baroque opera to have a tenor in the leading role,” he said, “but modern audiences expect one.” In this production, tenor Robert Stahley will sing the role of Jupiter. Soprano Jana McIntyre plays Semele, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit joins them as Juno/Ino. Countertenor Logan Tanner will be Prince Athamas.
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If you are apprehensive about the physical challenge of attending a long, complex Baroque opera, rest assured that this Semele is not like that at all. As originated by Pittsburgh Opera, this stylish new version runs for 90 minutes with no intermission. Art Deco inspired the Roaring Twenties set design. Given the recent rise in COVID cases, Opera Santa Barbara will limit ticket sales to 330 per performance. This reduction means that the Lobero will be at approximately 50 percent capacity, the better to enable social distancing.Musically, it’s a ravishing score. Two of Handel’s most excerpted arias come from Semele, and it’s safe to say that those whose taste in opera usually begins a few decades later with Mozart will be fully satisfied by the passionate interplay among the contrasting voices. Look out for how Sarah Coit differentiates between the two fiery roles she will sing, the jealous goddess Juno and Semele’s lovelorn sister, Ino. This double role was famously a tour de force of characterization for Marilyn Horne in the 1990s.
I won’t spoil the ending by revealing exactly how it all goes down, but I will suggest that Semele’s fate resembles that of Icarus, only it’s not the sun to which she flies too close but rather the father. It’s pleasing to notice that this production features an all-female directorial team, with Sara E. Widzer directing, rising star Emily Senturia conducting, Yuki Izumihara crafting the set/projections, and Helena Kuukka lighting the show. For tickets and information, visit operasb.org.