Semele: Marisa Balistreri, soprano
Jove: Marc Semrow, tenor
Iris: Catherine Brand, mezzo-soprano
Cadmus: Nathaniel Stampley, baritone
Juno: Kathleen Otterson, soprano
UW Chamber Orchestra
Blake Walter, conductor
The University Opera's production of Handel's Semele at Music Hall Friday evening, though weak in several important ways, hinted at more positive things to come.
To get the troubled aspects out of the way, David Torney's set filled the stage crosswise with a formidable 10-step staircase, high steps at that. While this separated singer/actors spatially, it seriously encumbered movement on stage by requiring everyone to clamber up and down, up and down. It was unfortunate, too, that people seen approaching you from above on a long staircase usually look clumsy. Only Joan Crawford really had that trick down. Madeline Cohen's costumes were something of a jumble in styles, especially a kind of awful yellow outfit for Jove, who looked anything but Jupiterian in it. Several other costumes, notably Juno's heavy robes and her attendant Iris's filmy gowns and scarves, worked quite well.
The singing was mostly pretty trying. The two really great parts, Semele (Marisa Balistreri) and Jove (Marc Semrow) were especially so. Balistreri (though not bad as an actor) wavered shockingly far from the pitch any number of times and in coloratura passages was gasping for breath. Semrow showed considerable attention to dynamic opportunities, but only about half the breath came out as musical tone. At the other end of the scale, the most hopeful sound came from Iris (Catherine Brand) -- she was by far the best actor -- and from Cadmus (Nathaniel Stampley), both of whom have good instruments and used them well, within the limitations of their training. There was regal bearing in Juno (Kathleen Otterson), but very unclear diction on top of a somewhat muffled singing voice.
The greatest strength of the performance was the orchestra, which played generally in good tune under the baton of Blake Walter. There was a laudable effort to observe stylistic details appropriate to Handel's day, including a basso continuo group and variously sized ensembles within the band. Tempos were just and articulation mostly clean.
Semele offers a few naughty bits, in that Jove is clumsily lusting after the vain and self-absorbed Semele, resulting in not a few on-stage displays of affection, fairly frankly eroticized. But whether by camp or just cleverness, the real consummation scene is masked from our view by the chorus, who keep peeking behind themselves to see how things are getting on. It was very funny. The story might be interpreted in modern terms as the CEO of a giant corporation sleazily pursuing a conniving climber of an underling, failing to reckon with behind-the-scenes machinations of the jilted spouse, with side plots. Sort of like afternoon TV in the Roman pantheon, but with glorious music.
The University Opera is a serious endeavor, I think, though it has a long way to go before it can claim much in the way of quality performances. Clearly the program has passionate supporters dedicated to its growth. I had the distinct feeling of a new beginning here, making it worthwhile to overlook some rough spots and look at the project with renewed hope after a long decline. These are students, after all, and to learn they must get out on the boards and actually do these things. The third and fourth performances of Semele, this Friday and Saturday, may have banished the opening-night jitters of the performance reviewed here.
Isthmus, February, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson