Archive for May, 2012

No saviour from up high delivers

May 14, 2012

Jane Archibald as Semele and William Burden as Jupiter

The last opera of this season at the Canadian Opera Company, Semele by Georg Frideric Handle, is also the most noteworthy production of this season. It brings a fresh breeze of new sensibility and goes to say that the interpretational possibilities of myths are limitless.  

The director and set designer Zheng Huan told the ancient myth of Semele on three parallel planes. During the overture a muted subtitled documentary tells the story of a tragedy which took place in an abandoned temple located in a small remote town in China. In recent times the temple served for grain storage. After this use was abandoned, the inhabitants decided to let the poorest family use the temple as their home. The parents of a mentally disturbed bachelor hoped that with this new home their son would have better chances to marry. He married, but soon thereafter became consumed by jealousy and murdered his wife. The criminal trial resulted in a death sentence and he died before the firing squad. In this true story Zheng Huan recognized a parallel with the ancient myth. The god Jupiter, fell  in love with a Thebian princess, the mortal Semele. When Jupiter’s wife discovered the adultery of her husband she tricked Semele into challenging Jupiter to promise her that he would appear before her not merely as a human, but in all his godly splendour.

When a mortal woman pokes at a god to show his true nature, she gets burned to death as a collateral damage. Semele is certainly not the only princess who found her premature and sudden demise when seeking “no less than all in full excess”.

This production abounds with stunning visual effects. The actual original wooden temple seen in the documentary is the centrepiece of the stage. The explicit  portrayal of the pleasures of physical love include, horny donkey, and choreography inspired by  figurae veneris, or the Kama Sutra. Yet there is nothing distasteful, and the spirit of joy and pleasure prevails. Those who felt offended by display of  physical love may be reminded that the purpose of theatre is not to conform with particular taste, but to be a sandbox for playfulness and thinking out of the box.

The third layer of the story is only hinted at by questioning the wisdom of mortals when they get dangerously close to the gods.  The audience is left to ponder about the director’s message choosing to end this opera with the chorus’s humming the Internationale, the hymn of collective consciousness. As if Zheng Huan reminds us: “no saviour from up high delivers”. The self-reliance and self-awareness would better serve unhappy humanity, rather than unrealistic ambitions aimed at the sphere out of their reach. Apart from the gods of ancient myths and contemporary religions, there are also mortals who rule the world as if they were gods. Different but no lesser dangers await mortals in challenging the powers of those self-proclaimed gods, as well of those mortals who usurp the status of gods.

The second performance of Semele at the Canadian Opera Company was received well by the audience. Rinaldo Alessandrini, a visiting conductor from Italy, led the orchestra with confidence and enthusiasm leading those who were alarmed by the creative interventions to surrender to the beauty of the music and singing alone. Jane Archibald as Semele is a rising star. Her technique and attention to the orchestra resulted in a perfect synchronicity inspiring the conductor to join the audience applauding her.  

Jane Archibald as Semele and William Burden as Jupiter

The staging and regie of Semele is unorthodox and thought-provoking. But isn’t art that very language that constantly seeks to expand the boundaries of expression? The history of art abounds with examples of enraged critics screaming their scorching invective at the artists who dare to let their creative impulses say anything beyond the established convention.

The Canadian Opera Company should be proud for bringing this production to its stage.


Adultery and treachery

May 7, 2012


Catherine Malfitano

Since 2005, Catherine Malfitano, an accomplished American soprano, has ventured to become an accomplished opera director as well. The Toronto opera house this season hosted Ms. Malfitano’s staging of two one-act operas: A Florentine Tragedy, by the Viennese composer Zemlinsky, and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Both operas are produced by the same creative team: Ms. Malfitano as director, Mr. Wilson Chin as set designer, Sir Andrew Davis as conductor, and Ms. Terese Wadden as costume designer. 


Both operas premiered about the same time 1917/1918 and they both take place in the city of Florence.

A Florentine Tragedy is a marriage triangle story. A wealthy merchant’s wife, bored and lonely, enjoys the attention of a Florentine nobleman and politician, sung by Mr. Alan Held. When a cuckolded husband finds his wife with another man in his home, he knows that “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”. Towards the inevitable tragedy the husband pretends that the visitor of his wife may be a buyer of his merchandise, or maybe a buyer of his house, or a suitor for his wife. The exchange escalates and the pretense of who is who in this charade falls away. The husband kills the seducer as the only remaining option. The curtain draws over the husband and wife embracing each other in a newly discovered affection wrapped in luxurious drapery in an image resembling the “Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.

The set design of A Florentine Tragedy goes for conventional solutions giving excessively large space to the city. Such a solution took away the focus and energy from the interaction among 3 protagonists of this opera. Even without any visual elements Zemlinsky’s score is rich enough to seize and hold the attention. On occasions the orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis swept over Michael Köning’s singing the role of Guido Bardi, Prince of Florence. It is possibly a deliberate choice to give a “voice” to this character by sweeping over his voice.

Gianni Schicchi hit the right note, in set design, in costumes, in the synchronized, effortless flow of the comic elements.  Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi has at its core a different type of illicit conduct. The inspiration for this libretto comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Apparently Gianni Schicchi is a historical character in an incident of fraud and treachery belonging to the 9th circle of Hell. The story takes place among socially lower circles than those in A Florentine Tragedy. A wealthy old bachelor just died. Rumour has it that he made a will leaving all to a monastery. His relatives gather to concoct a will which would leave his wealth to them. For that purpose they find Gianni Schicchi, a scumbag who knows how to “fix” things of such a nature. Impersonating the testator he dictates his last will to a notary. But alas, while impersonating the dead man, Gianni Schicchi bequeaths a considerable chunk of the testator’s  wealth to himself. The testator’s greedy relatives are outsmarted by a crook bigger and bolder. They fear legal reprisal, and poetic justice is not done.

It was a pleasant night at the opera for light entertainment. In the Directors’ Notes, Ms. Malfitano explains: “The themes of these two operas offer us a kaleidoscope of human behavior that all of us can identify with. [Some may beg to differ.] …These are familiar characters that permit us to admit that we too have erred in similar ways, or at the very least have contemplated such temptations.”

By espousing a light and conciliatory position Ms. Malfitano may inadvertently argue that ,mutatis mutandis, the Italian President’s  adulterous adventures with an underaged prostitute is a mere evolution of the intrinsic eternal frailties of human nature about which nothing can be done.

As a lawyer and a notary Yours Truly will not be breaking any news by saying that in the contemporary affairs of fraud and treachery the Gianni Schicchis of today have grown  firm roots in positions of  trust and power and need not look too hard in finding an accomplice in a lawyer, notary, accountant or  court official to sweep under the rug or suffocate in a procedural dead end, fraud and treachery of any magnitude.  

From time to time hell breaks loose and some big wig has to have his head chopped off, merely  to pay lip service, and show how after all  right prevails. Then when the dust settles , humankind may safely resume  its collective sleep, for which Ms. Malfitano’s artistic credo is a fine lullaby.