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Opera Review:

Chicago Opera Theater’s "SEMELE" at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is quickly building a reputation for wildly collaborative, cutting-edge productions of early operas – from "Orfeo" to "Acis and Galatea" – aimed at visually transferring their universal themes to contemporary audiences. These serious-satiric conceptual stagings, which do not sacrifice quality for quirkiness, are providing COT with a hip signature niche, especially when they are applied to a rarely performed work like George Frideric Handel’s 18th century "Semele."

A hybrid oratorio/opera, this tragicomedy in English takes its inspiration from mythology. The titular daughter of the King of Thebes abandons her soon-to-be-husband on their wedding day in favor of a superhuman fling with the god Jupiter, whose libido she awakens. Their affair is carried out in a secret, well-guarded hideaway, which even Jupiter’s insanely jealous wife, Juno, cannot break through without the aid of sorcery.

Jupiter appears to Semele in his human form, yet she pines for immortality. She is later tricked by Juno, disguised as Semele’s sister Ino, to make Jupiter promise to appear to her in his godly shape. Semele has been made to believe that’s what will make her immortal. After rashly agreeing to grant Semele anything she desires, Jupiter learns too late of his wife’s deadly game. He has no choice but to descend from the heavens before his mortal love as his fiery, electrified self – engulfing his beloved and inevitably killing her.

Not exactly the kind of plot most modern viewers would take seriously – even if Handel’s initial intentions were quite satiric. But, despite the fantastical elements of the story, it resonates on a stingingly metaphoric level. Semele’s quest for immortality can easily be equated with individuals’ eternal longing for power and celebrity. Director Christopher Cowell and conductor Errol Girdlestone have capitalized on that intensely relevant theme. And, although Cowell especially goes a bit overboard in his tireless layering of 21st century imagery, this high-gloss staging of "Semele" makes a bold statement about materialism and empty self-adoration.

The performers, albeit uneven in vocal skill, have mastered the complex nuances of their symbolic characters – transforming them into the same tortured and trailed modern-day counterparts one would find in the pages of any tabloid. COT has a knack for working with adventurous designers capable of turning the Athenaeum Theatre into a sardonic alternate universe. Production designer Bridget Kimak and lighting designer Joel Moritz have merged a variety of modern mythologies – Hollywood, politics, talk shows, spa culture and the latest celebrity-driven religious-cult craze.

Juno and Jupiter appear in stilted video projections similar to those wooden portraits of dictators. They oversee the opening mass nuptial proceedings with a certain diabolically plastic air. Soprano Nathalie Paulin taps profoundly into Semele’s soulful striving to transcend the mundane. Through Handel’s maddeningly difficult repetitions and interlocking harmonies, Paulin finds the tender and tragic core beneath Semele’s selfish yearnings. Tenor Michael Colvin’s caddish, preoccupied Jupiter reveals within his power-mongering a whisper of compassion and regret.

Bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera as the King of Thebes/god of sleep, Somnus; mezzo-soprano Anita Krause as Semele’s tormented sister Ino; and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull as Juno all deliver lush and confident performances.

Viewers, however, cannot help but get swept into – and, at times, distracted by – the production concept. When Semele gazes into Juno’s mirror and sees herself deceptively deified, her poses are mirrored by projections of famous women – Botticelli’s "Venus," Warhol’s "Marilyn" and Eva Peron – Photo-Shopped with Paulin’s face. The scene is a brilliant, if overlong, operatic art installation. It also hammers home the fleeting notion of celebrity and Handel’s overriding theme of mere mortals’ (versus royals and other self-proclaimed deities on earth) being wary of ever trying to rise above their lots in life.

Then – unlike the ingeniously balanced team of director Diane Paulus and conductor Jane Glover (COT’s "Orfeo" and "Cosi fan tutte") – Cowell and Girdlestone get carried away with more trendy innovations. Does the second half really have to open with a dated "Charlie’s Angels" pose? And, while the joke of having the nymph Pasithea dressed as a cowgirl is quite clear, her character is no more than an offensively ditzy, gum-chomping sex toy. The spa, phallic-rainbow cactus, cell phones, laptops, film crew (some sporting thunderbolt jackets) and Oprah touches threaten to pull us out of the glorious music and inherently entertaining story at hand.

They provoke plenty of smirking recognition. But some judicious conceptual editing could make this "Semele" a more suggestively piquant and pertinent experience.

Chicago Opera Theater’s production of "Semele" runs May 12 at 3 p.m.; and May 16 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $35-$68. Call 312-704-8414 or log onto www.ChicagoOperaTheater.org.

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