Staging oratorios in the opera house is nearly routine nowadays, especially those by Handel; for every “Agrippina,” you’re likely to get a “Messiah” too.
Somewhere in between is “Semele,” a dramatic work that Handel described as “after the manner of an oratorio.” It lends itself both to the concert hall and the opera house, and with a long list of principal characters thrives best with a luxury cast — which it received at the Bavarian State Opera in an entertaining, lucid and often sexy new staging by Claus Guth that premiered on Saturday, a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera that will eventually travel to New York.
That “Semele” has been categorized as an oratorio has more to do with context than form. By the time it premiered at Covent Garden in 1744, Italian operas, which Handel had been composing for decades, were falling out of fashion, and he had moved on to English-language concert works like “Messiah.”
In writing “Semele,” Handel and an unknown collaborator adapted William Congreve’s early 18th-century opera libretto of the same name. But rather than present it as a theatrical work, Handel disguised it as an oratorio for the Lenten concert season — even though the secular story, based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” wasn’t right for the occasion. There was hardly anything Christian about its brazen eroticism and adultery, or about a god having to explain to his mortal mistress that she needs rest because she doesn’t have his sexual stamina.
Handel wasn’t able to have it both ways; “Semele” ran for several performances, then languished until the 20th century. But its resurgence has been richly mined, with musicians and directors continuously inspired by its Epicurean longing and sensuality, its psychological complexity and its timeless treatment of incompatible love — all thoughts and feelings, in Handel’s aria writing, repeated, examined sculpturally and reconsidered with doubt and revelation.
Guth’s production dives into the Semele’s subconscious, her frustrations and fantasies, on the day of her wedding. A reluctant bride, she is first shown posing next her groom, Athamas, before stepping out of a shell-like gown that maintains its shape without her. It’s not the last time that happens; she always seems to be getting into or out of a dress as she drifts between reality and daydream, between accepting her life and rejecting it.
During the overture, crisply and briskly articulated in the pit under Gianluca Capuano’s baton, Semele and Athamas are seen posing with friends and family for increasingly cringe-worthy group portraits, their forced smiles as uncomfortably glaring as the enormous floral letters spelling out “LOVE” behind them. Distracted by a black feather — Guth’s nod to the libretto’s depiction of the god Jupiter as an eagle — Semele retreats into her mind, represented by a sudden change in light from bright to dark in Michael Bauer’s design.
She imagines breaking out of her wedding’s austerely white, grand room with an ax as she tears a hole into the wall of Michael Levine’s bandshell-like set of a three-sided room enclosed with a ceiling. In doing so, she opens a portal into the world of the gods, where her affair with Jupiter will set off a chain of events that leads to her doom.
Here, however, the story isn’t so straightforward. And neither are the performances. A Guth production often demands actorly skill of its singers, and in Munich — at the Prinzregententheater, one of the Bavarian State Opera’s smaller halls — the principal cast members were intimately close to the audience, exposed both visually and musically.
No one more so than the soprano Brenda Rae as Semele, who rarely leaves the stage and is given one of the show’s most athletic arias, “Myself I shall adore.” As an actor, she sympathetically traced a downward plunge from hesitation to ecstasy, then harried despair and hollowed catatonia. Musically, however, she struggled to match the challenging score; her voice on Saturday was agile but thin, particularly through runs and ornamentation. Even the soft serenity she achieved in “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” gave way, on a sustained trill, to a disorientingly jagged warble.
As Jupiter, Michael Spyres, too, gave an unsteady account of a difficult role. His instrument remains baffling: immense in its power and remarkable in its baritone-tenor range, but also unwieldy and better suited to the legato phrasing of the famous aria “Where’er you walk” than the more acrobatically breathless “I must with speed amuse her.” At the end of that, though, he impressively joined a high-kicking chorus line choreographed by Ramses Sigl.
He wasn’t the only singer given movement onstage. Jakub Jozef Orlinski, the countertenor in the role of Athamas, is also a breakdancer, which Guth spotlights when his character desperately attempts to entertain Semele. Charismatic and handsome, Orlinski stopped the show with the applause his dance earned. But more enchanting was the purity of his sound — sublimely crystalline in “Come, Zephyrs, come” — which blended warmly with the lower end of Athamas’s altolike tessitura.
That aria, put in Athamas’s mouth rather than Cupid’s, made for a shattering juxtaposition with Semele’s “O sleep.” Orlinski and Rae sang near, but not at, each other, embodying that painfully familiar feeling of two people expressing themselves yet failing to truly communicate.
As Jupiter’s enraged and scheming wife, Juno, the typically mighty but pleasant mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo seemed to have been handed a part not suited to her voice; but with the sprightly soprano Jessica Niles as Iris, she provided much of the show’s levity, through musical delivery and physical comedy. Charming, as well, was the bass-baritone Philippe Sly, his sound focused and vibrant as Semele’s father, Cadmus, and the drowsy Somnus.
Among the smaller roles, Nadezhda Karyazina, as Semele’s sister, Ino, was prone to excessive gesture, but found a touching balance of outward emotion and poise in the climactic scene of her stepping in to marry Athamas.
By that point, Guth shows Semele as alive, but so deep in her imagination that she can’t find her way back to reality; rather than reduced to ashes by Jupiter’s thunderbolts, she sits in the wedding hall lifeless as the world goes on around her. Semele may be free from the institution of marriage, but the institution endures without her.
It’s a bittersweet ending that comes through persuasively and clearly. In that regard, when it reaches New York, Guth’s staging will be a fitting addition to the Met’s current era of many handsome, cosmetically modern productions. More uncertain, though, is how it will scale from the Prinzregententheater — whose seating capacity barely tops 1,100 — to the 3,800-seat Met, a company in desperate need of a second, smaller house.
Semele transforms in the final moments from lifelessness to something like rebirth, suggesting that she may be more of a prophet than a mere dreamer. But the change occurs on her face alone; the question, now, is whether Guth can repeat that subtlety at the Met.
Through July 25 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich; staatsoper.de.
Joshua Barone is the assistant classical music and dance editor on the Culture Desk and a contributing classical music critic. More about Joshua Barone
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