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OPERA REVIEW

Handel as raunchy romp

June 06, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

To see Long Beach Opera's new production of Handel's "Semele," you enter the theater past a display devoted to a big-selling '70s pop group. The company performs, after all, in the Richard & Karen Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Long Beach.

You settle in for a long opera/oratorio, high-minded in its Ovid-based libretto by the English poet William Congreve, and containing some of Handel's most glorious, fireworks-radiating vocal music.

Eager for centuries to slip away, you notice that Musical Angelica has already assembled. This local replica of a Baroque orchestra first announces its pedigree visually -- a tall theorbo (a long-limbed lute) rises high out of the pit. Andreas Mitisek, the company's artistic and general director, walks to the front of the orchestra, sits at the harpsichord and begins to conduct, like a music master of old.

The sound of the period instruments (down to insecure intonation) immediately transports the listener to Covent Garden, 1744. But when the curtain rises halfway through the overture, what we see is hugely inaccurate. The stage is a wide-screen image of Dallas. That's "Dallas," the TV soap opera, an emblem of harebrained '80s pop culture.

Even so, it's just about perfect -- garish ranch, raunchy sex, tacky hooker motel, world's worst fashions and all.

The team of stage director Isabel Milenski and set designer Darcy Scanlin, who have been responsible for some of the company's impishly brazen productions of recent years, were completely in form Saturday night for the premiere of "Semele."

Handel's opera (first given as an oratorio only because the opera business wasn't so good in 1744) is a morality tale. And in this brilliantly bratty, cynically clever production, mean Texas oilmen and their vain women who thought themselves godlike are shown, in fact, to be gods and goddesses -- the vainglorious ones of Greek myth.

Semele, the beautiful daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, is about to marry a prince, Athamas. But she is more turned on by the god, Jupiter, who has taken mortal form in order to seduce her. She breaks off the wedding and runs off with her lover, dreaming, she sings, of "endless pleasure, endless love."

Jupiter's wife, Juno, disguised as Semele's sister, Ino, convinces her rival that the best sex is when Jupiter loses the disguise. With narcissistic visions of goddess-hood -- expressed in a maliciously spectacular aria, "Myself, I shall adore" -- Semele demands Jupiter unmask. It is more than any mortal can bear, and he kills her.

So how does all this play out on J.R.'s ranch? For the most part, hilariously.

Jupiter has the flashiest silver belt buckle, the fanciest boots and a convertible Mercedes sports car. Athamas, a crybaby all in white, gets worked over by Jupiter. Cadmus wears a god-awful plaid jacket (Sarah Brown was the busy costume designer). The maid, Iris, is a tough cookie. Ino is loose and sexy. Most of the sex takes place in cars or in the glare of headlights (Heather Carson did the striking lighting). Jupiter gets rid of Semele the cowboy way -- he shoots her.

The cast of singers rises to all this with something approaching dramatic glee. Semele is one of Handel's most demanding roles; in the last act she has a string of arias that are both a vocal and emotional roller coaster.

Caroline Worra did not begin on sure footing. But she had a lot to deal with, not only in Milenski's lurid staging but also the surprisingly shaky performance by Musica Angelica (it was a bad night for the brass). But by the last act she settled down musically as she also came to life dramatically, and everything flowed.

Alan Dornak's Athamas revealed an impressive new countertenor on the scene. Kristin Rothfuss was the robustly lustful Ino. Benjamin Brecher's Jupiter was scary, although his tenor is thin. Nathan Starke was both a properly vulgar Cadmus and a very funny Somnus (the god of sleep and, here, a corrupt highway patrolman). Melissa Simpson's Iris was the character with the most attitude, although Cynthia Jansen's Juno had plenty of attitude herself.

Mitisek led a lively performance, and the orchestra managed to find its bearings as the evening progressed. Perhaps the journey from 1744 to 1984 was a bit more jarring for it than for some of the rest of us.

*

'Semele'

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $55 to $110

Contact: (562) 985-7000 or www.carpenterarts.org

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