Washington Opera's 'Semele' smashing

January 10, 1995|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

The Washington Opera production of "Semele" by George Frederic Handel opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center with a splendid cast, excellent sets and a sense of wit and humor that brought this Baroque masterpiece to life.

"Semele" is an opera in English, with a libretto by William Congreve. The work includes some of Handel's most beautiful music, including the aria "Where'er you walk." It premiered without sets or costumes (in oratorio form) on Feb. 10, 1744. In this form, the work was a total failure, and it was not until this century that the opera was given a proper stage setting. The story of Semele and her very dangerous liaison with Jupiter combines gods and mortals while displaying a full range of human emotions.

The two female lead roles of Semele and Juno/Ino were simply stellar in the Washington Opera's production. Brenda Harris displayed a beautiful and powerful voice in the highly taxing role of Semele. Her third act aria "Myself I shall adore" was a virtuoso tour de force of self-love. Patricia Spence was no less impressive. She has the stage presence of a young Marilyn Horne, and her vocal abilities also remind this listener of that great mezzo's talent. This double-edged role has the best music in the opera, and Ms. Spence seized its riches.

Tenor Richard Croft, in the other principal role, Jupiter, was also excellent to superb. Like Semele and Juno/Ino, Jupiter has a huge number of almost instrumental, florid passage work and huge vocal leaps that would destroy lesser singers. Mr. Croft was perfectly seductive as the amorous but fiery deity. His "Where'er you walk" was captivating. In its opera setting, it is a sensuous aria rather than a churchy anthem.

The smaller roles were also impressive. Countertenor David Daniels has only one brief but brilliant aria as Athamas, and he was magnificent. The two bass roles were both ideally cast. Kevin Langan was a commanding Cadmus. Thomas Paul was a larger-than-life Somnus, the God of Sleep. His third-act "Leave me, loathsome light" is the perfect characterization of Somnus, and Mr. Paul took full advantage of this heavenly music.

The chorus and orchestra of the Washington Opera did their usual excellent job. Conductor Martin Pearlman gave a generally intelligent account of the score. The overture and gavotte were a little too earthbound, but that may have been opening-night uneasiness.

One problem with Mr. Pearlman's work is the nasty habit of having his left hand mirror his baton hand. This caused several orchestral imprecisions because he was giving two slightly different beats to the orchestra. The smaller pit did minimize this problem, because the players seemed to be able to hear each other and the singers on stage.

'SEMELE'

What: Washington Opera performs "Semele"

Where: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center

When: Jan. 13, 16, 22, 27 and Feb. 2, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18; curtain time is 7:30 p.m. except for Jan. 22 and Feb. 12, which are matinees starting at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $85-$150

Call: (202) 416-7800

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