By Benjamin Preston
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
What do you get when you mix an 18th century opera by George Frideric Handel, a 450-year-old Chinese temple and a pair of sumo wrestlers? The Canadian Opera Company took a stab at solving the riddle with a presentation earlier this month of Handel’s “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
Zhang Huan — a Chinese performance artist known for sitting on a toilet, naked and covered with honey, while insects crawled all over his flesh — made his initial foray into opera with the piece. And, he said in an interview with The New York Times, his last.
At the time of its London premiere in 1744, “Semele,” a sexually-charged story based upon Greek mythology, came as a bit of a shock to a public that was more attuned to prim Christian themes. Today’s audience is undoubtedly pre-seasoned to be more accepting of racy content, although a few elements of its most recent interpretation may have caused a few in the audience to blush or, at least, to giggle bashfully. Most notable among these were a colorful horse — made from a suit worn by two people — sporting a more or less anatomically correct, bright pink erection and a monk orgy.
Zhang set the 271-year-old opera in a 450-year-old Ming Dynasty temple he had reconstructed on the stage. The piece began with a short film explaining how the temple had been used as a government office for decades, then occupied by a poor family. During the demolition, Zhang said he found a diary in the wall in which a man describes discovering his wife’s affair and killing her. It’s an apt introduction for a story that is very much about lustful passion, jealousy and destruction, and served to illustrate that human themes, whether Greek, Chinese or American, are universal.
There’s no mistaking Handel’s music as a product of a different time, but its intricacy and the vocal acrobatics required to execute it continued to inspire awe. Jane Archibald, in the title role of Semele, gave a strong performance, both vocally and in terms of stage acting. She presented the sensual side of her character that had attracted Jupiter, king of the gods. Hilary Summers, who played Semele’s sister Ino, and Juno, the jilted and jealous goddess, made the story’s dark catalyst character engaging and even amusing as Semele’s destruction was plotted.
The sumo wrestlers were a rare treat for operagoers and staged a real match (if the violent slapping sounds their flesh made as they collided at speed onstage was any indication). They were part of a sampling of Asian cultural tidbits sprinkled throughout the production, including an enchanting Tibetan folk singer, a ghostlike dragon snaking through the temple’s columns and, of course, the aroused horse.
Although Semele typically concludes with the joyous, Phoenix-like birth of Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, Zhang left it out. Instead, Semele’s ashes are swept away, and another short film shows the image of a woman’s face being washed away by rain. It’s a touch that signals the Buddhist idea that all things are impermanent.