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Semele, Superstar

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Sex Kitten Elizabeth Futral channels Marilyn Monroe in NYCO production

In a season dominated news of sweeping changes across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center’s junior company, the New York City Opera, opened its season with a solid, if unsurprising, production of Handel’s “Semele.”

This baroque oratorio, usually performed as an opera, provided a luxe vehicle for the talents of soprano Elizabeth Futral as the mortal princess Semele who becomes the mistress of Jove. Futral is gorgeous enough to tempt the king of the gods, feminine and curvaceous, and she has the personality and wit to put over her director’s concept of Semele as a superstar sex kitten. Her light lyric soprano is not particularly distinctive in timbre, but it’s a pleasant and pliable instrument especially on high.

On occasion, Futral threw herself a little too enthusiastically into the dramatic side of her role at the expense of a disciplined legato line. Her first couple of arias were marred by little scoops and gurgles, but she returned to good behavior for the Act 1 showpiece ”Endless pleasure.” Her precise but lively coloratura in “Myself I shall adore” superbly evoked Semele’s giddy joy, even as the soprano danced madly about the stage in Stephen Lawless’ hyperactive staging.

More precise vocally, if somewhat less abandoned physically, was the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in the “evil twin” roles of Ino, Semele’s sister and Juno, Semele’s rival. The fiery second act aria “Hence, Iris hence away” for once did not play as a splashy star turn; instead, Genaux’s crystalline coloratura suggested the icy calculation powering Juno’s revenge. The mezzo further exuded the confidence of a born stage animal—coolly deadpan when her “Iris” aria was staged as a Kay Thompson nightclub number.

Matthew White’s virile countertenor was wasted on the role of Semele’s wimpy suitor Athamas; in contrast, the godly role of Jove overwhelmed the earthbound tenor of Robert Breault. The wonderfully expressive Sanford Sylvan made every word vivid, but the low tessitura of Cadmus and Somnus left his light baritone sounding hollow.

In keeping with a production that transformed Juno into Jackie Kennedy, soprano Constance Hauman sang Iris in the manner of Edie Bouvier Beale. Yes, you heard me right—Juno was Jackie Kennedy in pink suit and pillbox, and Semele was Marilyn Monroe, complete with updraft-twirled skirts. These cheap gags sank a production that actually began most promisingly.

Anthony Baker’s set depicted a sedate concert hall, with the chorus on risers and the formally dressed soloists lined up with music stands. When Jove’s thunderbolts disrupt the ceremony, the hall crumbles and the soloists gradually transform into the opera’s mythical characters. This could have been an ideal way to draw the audience into the rather artificial conventions of Handel’s opera, but Lawless veered instead into stale camp, nowhere near as witty as La Gran Scena’s travesty of the same material.

Antony Walker’s middle-of-the-road musical direction is firmly within the NYCO’s house style. The modern instruments played with vibrato and graces and ornamental repeats were scrupulously observed. I would question only Walker’s ponderous pace for some of the accompanied recitatives such as “ Ah me! Too late I now repent.”

James Jorden is the producer of the podcast “Unnatural Acts of Opera” at parterre.com.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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