The COC Ensemble Studio's Presentation: May 23, 2012


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Scenes From the COC Ensemble Studio's Presentation of 'Semele'
Photos by Michael Cooper
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Go to the Feature about theCOC's Production of 'Semele'



Semele: The Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio's Performance
Hilarious Staging with a Serious Message

by Brian Hay

Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini and the COC Orchestra delivered a ravishing interpretation of the score. The group was scaled down but Alessandrini maintained a strong bass presence by using five cellos. It added weight to Handel's bass lines and created a spring board for the violins to play off of. They sounded like ethereal furies darting through the air as they weaved their way around the score. Sweeping measures captured the melodic sonority of the music while sharp use of dynamics emphasized its dramatic qualities.

Philippe Sly's bass-baritone voice combined crystalline clarity with a coating of the finest silk during his performances as both 'Cadmus' and 'Somnus'. Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb displayed great vocal agility through extremely demanding passages in the roles of 'Ino' and 'Juno'. She struggled a bit with parts of 'Hence, Iris, hence away' but it's hard to fault her — the sections that gave her problems were so far into the bottom of her range they could have been written for a bass. She was fine everywhere else.

Tenor Christopher Enns captured the seductive passion of the character 'Jupiter' and did a yeoman's job of portraying the man's abject helplessness in the face of 'Semele's' final demands. Countertenor Ryan Belongie gave a hilarious portrayal of Semele's hapless human suitor, 'Athamas'. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley gave the lone aria for 'Iris', 'There, from mortal cares retiring', a performance that was absolutely gorgeous. She wrapped herself in every note and completely owned the stage for those few moments.

Sopranos Mireille Asselin and Ambur Braid made the variations in their interpretations of 'Semele' work in fine style. Mireille used her playful personality and immense intelligence to emphasize the demure, nurturing and slightly awestruck aspects of the character. The lightness and effortless agility of her singing made her performance of 'Endless Pleasure' one that would have been deserving of an encore performance. Ambur Braid used vocal power normally associated with Wagnerian sopranos to skillfully morph Semele's characterization into the impassioned and forceful individual who thrusts everything aside in her (albeit unknowing) charge to the cattle-chute. Her performance of 'Myself I shall adore' was a spell-binding high point of the show.

The performances Director Zhang Huan drew from the singers defined their characters clearly. Jupiter's (Enns) lust for the beguiling Semele (Asselin) was palpable enough to be contagious. His horror at what he'd brought about in the face of the demanding woman (Braid) was deeply moving. The ruthless glee Juno (Chaieb) displayed plotting Semele's demise was comic and terrifying. The revelry 'Iris' (Woodley) depicted through her complicity in the plot came through with the keenness of a sharpened blade. The tenderness and underlying forbidding in the portrayals of Cadmus and Somnus (Sly) could be felt through the hall. Several of the characters may have been gods but their humanity shone like a beacon penetrating fog.

Huan's staging never dragged. The video documentary that was screened during the performance of the 'Overture' laid the undertone of tragedy. The action and performances delivered the comedy needed to keep it from buckling under the weight of its conclusion. The inclusion of the pantomime donkey had me in stitches when entered during the lovely choral piece, 'Lucky omens bless our rites'. Its cavorting in the garden of pleasure with its passion the size of Mount Olympus was outrageously funny. Setting 'Myself I shall adore' in front of a gigantic mirror was brilliant. The staging carried deeper messages as well.

That scene involving the Sumo Wrestlers pointed at the hypocrisy of the Gods who were busy using the sublimely lovely chorus, Bless the glad earth with heavenly days', to carp about their divinity. Elements of class struggle were portrayed with an overview that was fairly evenhanded though. Juno's disdain belonged to one viewing people she saw as a lower order. Semele's demanding arrogance however, would quickly have transformed any compassion she could have felt to the harshness necessary for self-defence. Jupiter's helplessness in the face of impending tragedy conveyed the fact that everyone's trapped at some point, regardless of their stature.

The temple, brought in by Director Huan, made an excellent set piece. Han Feng's wardrobe design was vibrantly colourful. With the pastel lighting hues originally designed by Wolfgang Göbbel and brilliantly recreated by Willem Laarman they combined to make the piece stunningly beautiful. Stage Manager kept scene changes flowing effortlessly. The subtitles handled by Gunta Dreifelds were barely needed because the diction of the singers was so good but they followed the musical cues very well. The COC choir, under the direction of Sandra Horst gave the type of justice to Handel's magnificent choruses that's often only dreamt about. She, and they cannot be given enough credit.

Chance or dumb luck had me seated next to singers Simone Osbourne and Anthony Roth Costanzo. They were warm and approachable. Simone especially, was full of fun.* She cheered with unbridled enthusiasm for every strong moment the cast on stage had. She said it all when she said they're a family. It was a wonderful look at how satisfying this can be on both sides of the stage.

It gave the perfect note for this evening because this one was completely satisfying.

* Simone also recognized me, from a facebook photo yet. These people care about they're doing and about what people think. How deeply also showed through. It's something to keep in mind, always.

This performance took place at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto Ontario on Wednesday May 23, 2012. This review was done to convey impressions of what it was like to be there.

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Mireille Asselin as 'Semele' and
Phillipe Sly as 'Cadmus

From the COC Ensemble Studios' Production of 'Semele
May 23, 2012
Used Courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company
Photo by Michael Cooper
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