Sunday, October 1, 2006


Composed by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by William Congreve
Conducted by Anthony Walker
Starring Elizabeth Futral, Viveca Genaux, Robert Breault, Matthew White, Sanford Sylvan

New York City Opera
Through October 4, 2006

Futral as Semele

Turning Handel's baroque-era oratorio Semel into a full production set in the early 1960s during the JFK administration is stupefying; that Stephen Lawless's staging at the New York State Theater isn't entirely ludicrous is due mostly to a splendid cast and musicians, who remind us that this is among Handel's most elegant scores.

With a libretto by the great Restoration playwright John Congreve, Handel tackles a well-worn mythological plot: the beautiful mortal Semele is seduced by the God of gods Jupiter, and the goddess Juno--sick of her husband's overtures to mere women--decides to take matters into her own hands. Disguised as Semele's beloved sister Ino, Juno nudges her towards her fatal demand: she demands that Jupiter make her immortal, which is a big no-no.

To this slight but humorous story Handel added his usual brilliance, including high-flying and emotional arias for the leads; of course, this being baroque opera, many of these set pieces go on too long, as the singers keep repeating the same lines over and over again. Easily 30 or 40 minutes could be cut without doing undue harm to the entire work, but then connoisseurs of baroque music would be up in arms.

Lawless's ridiculous conceit is to make Semele a glamorous Hollywood star a la Marilyn Monroe, carrying on an affair with President Kennedy--er, Jupiter--in blonde wig and all. In the meantime, Jupiter's wife Jackie O--I mean Juno--fed up with the whole thing, exacts her revenge. Mindless but occasionally clever, it's the kind of "idea" that should, at most, take up all of a five-minute "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Yet Lawless runs with it anyway, cluttering the stage with a whole phalanx of secret service men, star-struck reporters and photographers, even a mimed role for Kennedy's loyal secretary.

Such dopiness, however, doesn't detract from the talented onstage performers. Tenor Robert Breault, although he looks nothing like JFK (and, unlike the women, nothing is done to even try to make him remotely recognizable as the president), sings with sureness and power. Alaskan-born mezzo Viveca Genaux, in the dual roles of Juno/Jackie O and Semele's sister Ino, not only looks like the First Lady with her pillow box hat and dark glasses, but has a formidable voice that can easily scale Handel's sheerly difficult musical cliffs.

Best of all--as she always is at City Opera--is soprano Elizabeth Futral, who triumphs over her director's inane concept, making Semele a musical and histrionic knockout as Marilyn. Futral not only has a lot of fun hamming it up onstage, including a quick simulation of Marilyn Monroe's infamous "blown dress" photo-op, but her glorious voice has never sounded better.

Futral's flexible vocal instrument is tailor-made for Handel--as it also is for Donizetti, Delibes, Strauss, and Berlioz, all of which she has sung beautifully in New York--and she has no trouble with the vast wellsprings of emotion and technique needed for Semele's many show-stopping arias, such as the lovely lament "Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?" and the electric "Myself I Shall Adore," the latter of which she's forced to sing while narcissistically staring at life-size pictures of herself on blown-up magazine covers. A consummate actress and singer, Futral desperately needs to be seen and heard in local halls more often. (Take note that she's singing in the Met Opera's world premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor with Placido Domingo in January.)

Antony Walker conducts the City Opera orchestra well, and the chorus--also forced to act silly throughout the opera--sounds mightily terrific. Everything about this Semele, in fact, is above reproach--except for its director's staging.

For those who can't have enough Handel, another of his works, Flavio, returns to City Opera in April.

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