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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 23 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 21
Pacific MusicWorks and the UW School of Music present an excellent opera staging of G.F. Handel's Semele
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Pacific MusicWorks and the UW School of Music present an excellent opera staging of G.F. Handel's Semele

by Adam Ross - SGN Contributing Writer

SEMELE
PACIFIC MUSICWORKS &
UW SCHOOL OF MUSIC
MEANY HALL
May 18


Semele is a bit of an anomaly amongst Handel's vocal works - it is the only one of his operas written in English, and it is most often performed as an oratorio. Under the expert guidance of Stephen Stubbs, audiences in Seattle were treated to the 'real deal' this weekend, with an imaginative opera staging that combined techniques of oratorio, performance art, dance and digital media to reconceive the piece as something new altogether.

Also new to this performance was the collaboration between the professional musicians of Stubbs' Pacific MusicWorks alongside amateur student performers of the University of Washington School of Music, where Stubbs now serves as faculty. The program notes explained that this sort of collaboration can serve as a means to produce opera more economically, bringing rare repertoire to audiences unlikely to hear this music.

Keeping to an economical budget did not mean the performance lacked for creativity.

Kudos must be given to visual artist James Darrah and his team for their conception. Though sets were spare, an inspired use of video montages projected onto floating wisps of cloth contributed to the hypnotic, dreamy effect of the staging, ending in a literal disassembling of the stage in the final ensemble pieces to spectacular effect. Special mention also must be made to the ingenious presentation of the supertitles: traditional text projected above the stage for recitative; but for arias, the sung texts were presented in poetic forms, as part of the video montages, in elegant font, which only served to highlight the superb singing of the ensemble cast.

On to the singing:

Haeran Hong made a rich-voiced and vivid characterization as the anti-heroine Semele, highlighted by her effusive performance of the famous 'Endless Pleasure' and her blazing final aria. As her father, Colin Ramsey as Cadmus opened the show with his resonant bass to memorable effect. Another aria, with Ramsey playing a second role as Somnus, the god of sleep, was also remarkable, with Handel's amazing music, foreshadowing Wagner's awakening of Fafner in The Ring Cycle in its exploration of deep timbres, stirring in slow harmonic development.

On the other side of the vocal spectrum, soprano Valerie Vinzant was hilarious in her turn as the vixen-like Iris - the staging involved her falling off the stage at one point! - and her dexterous leaps in her upper range to match her leaps back onto the stage. Aaron Sheehan as Jupiter perhaps did not show enough color or variation in his voice to fully embody the leader of the Roman gods, but his winsome performance of the affective 'Where'er You Walk' was nevertheless a highlight.

Last, but certainly not least, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell was haunting in her dual performances as Ino and Juno. Her probing turn in the aria 'Turn, Hopeless Lover' - essentially a duet between alto and cello - stole the show for the depths of emotion plumbed in her singing juxtaposed against the plangent playing of the solo cellist.

Mention also must be made for the excellent ensemble singing of the student chorus, with their incisive yet fresh-sounding choruses. Similarly, the small string, percussion and harpsichord ensemble also performed well, even though they displayed some raggedness in phrasing.

This small quibble aside, with this production following notable successes in past years, including their production of Monteverdi's 'Vespers,' as well as other rarely performed byways of early music, Stubbs and his ensembles continue to go from strength to strength with their innovative performances. With this production of Semele (and with what one hopes will continue to be a fruitful partnership with the UW School of Music), Pacific MusicWorks further anchors its place within Seattle's vibrant early music scene.

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