Themes of desire and overreaching ambition were played out within the lofty vaults of the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Thursday 29 October with New Zealand Opera’s lustrous new production of Handel’s Semele. A work that originally was intended to be sacred, Georg Frederic Handel’s dramatic impulses could not be contained and burst out of their structure to find full flight. There are sensual bedroom scenes and fanciful visitations from Gods and Demi-Goddesses. This is a work that bursts with the delicious tension of placing a theatre show in a place of worship. Directors Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Jacqueline Coats play with this push-pull with winning style lit up by the sumptuous design of Tracy Grant Lord.
There are successful partnerships at work here. The Very Reverend Anne Mills of Parnell’s Holy Trinity was consulted as part of the production process (you can read more about that HERE), and the show respectfully and imaginatively fills out almost every part of the cathedral’s architecture. The audience arrives to find they are welcomed to a wedding, even the be-ribboned wedding cars parked outside (hello Škoda) and a purple carpet providing the runway for much dramatic fun. And I have to give a mention to the very excellent interval wines and ice creams, some classy partners here.
But tearing myself away from those pleasures, the production actually carries some risk. Not only a company endeavouring to produce live shows in a year of a pandemic but the repertoire. Handel hasn’t had a proven track record of huge houses (unless you count Handel’s Messiah), and this production carries with it the burden of being the only full opera this year, it has to earn its keep. For NZ Opera’s sake, it needs to be a stunner and sell out.
I am happy to report that this is absolutely the one show you must see this year. This is theatre and music of the highest level of enjoyment with its delightful performance, gorgeous staging and lush design. And how often do you get invited to the wedding of the year?
Bringing this all together with considerable skill and style from what would have been the orchestral pit, conductor Peter Walls drew together Baroque players from all over New Zealand to form what I think is the first-ever NZ Opera Baroque Orchestra. These players are just nuts about Handel and it shows. Walls, partnered with concertmaster Peter Clark, lead the ensemble with passion and enormous energy, inviting both aching melancholy and playful duetting. And that is some feat in a space as large as the cathedral, in partnership with a considerable amount of technology in the form of relay screens. However, no amplification needed, it turns out that the acoustics of the cathedral are just made for opera.
Vocally I have to kneel before the altar of Emma Pearson. Folks, go hear this soprano perform, every phrase shines with the beauty of authentic expression. If I depart this mortal coil tomorrow, I will know that I have heard the best version I'm likely to hear of the Act III aria “No, No, I’ll take no less” - flawless coloratura sung with bravura and flare. Pearson is beautifully partnered by Amitai Pati performing the role of Jupiter (and the role of Apollo, almost a Buy-One-Get-One-Free…). The beauty of Pati’s tone has recently secured him international attention and it is our great fortune he is here in Aotearoa to perform this role. With every note of “Wheree’er you walk”, Pati enchanted his audience.
No less important are the other roles of Ino and Juno performed with arch character and vampish confidence by mezzo soprano Sarah Castle. A stroke of genius to set the scene between Juno and her sidekick Iris (performed with supremely pretty tone by Chelsea Dolman) on mobile phones from opposite balconies. A welcome return to Aotearoa’s stage for Kiwi bass-baritone Paul Whelan, his Act III aria “Leave me, loathsome light!” was glossy, dark and plain odd, just the way Somnus should be. The jilted bridegroom Athamas gets his time in the sun with an Act III aria “Despair no more shall wound me”. Countertenor Stephen Diaz’ tone has much enriched since I last heard him sing in Auckland, an impressive delivery which, at times, showed touches of untethered intonation.
Oh and welcome back to the glorious beast that is the NZ Opera Chorus. New chorus master and Head of Music Andrew Crooks coaxed out lush tone and joyous phrases from these company singers. Set in the choir loft and lit up by magnificent cathedral stained glass, one of the comic highlights of the evening was the Chorus’ gospel rock-style accompaniment to Semele’s “Endless pleasure”.
The sheer beauty of the Holy Trinity is illuminated by Jo Kilgour’s lighting touches with a final chorus tableau that is worthy of a Caravaggio painting. And with a richness of costuming (including the longest bridal train I have ever witnessed), it fills the cathedral with colour.
Just occasionally the staging almost blurred into panto. Poor Ino’s Act I aria “Turn, hopeless lover” was somewhat upstaged by the departure of giggling wedding actors. And the ‘departure’ of our beloved heroine was a bit of a damp squib rather than a scorching thunderbolt, but I suspect the sleeves had run out of tricks. However, there was more than enough life and shaping to please any opera sceptics.
New Zealand Opera’s production of Semele contains many sweet surprises and much joy. Finally, audiences are unlocked and I hope are flocking to this production to luxuriate in sumptuous design and staging, quality Baroque instrumental performance and vocal virtuosity. Radio 13 warmly congratulates the company on their welcome return to live performance.
NZ Opera's Semele performance dates HERE