The “Eagle palace snatch-drama crisis” line comes from the headline of the mock-up of The Times that Cadmus King of Thebes Important English Guy is handed when the news goes public that his daughter Semele has been snatched away from the palace by Jupiter, in the form of an eagle. And one cannot blame The Times for the size of the typeface on that headline, either. How often do eagle snatch crises happen anymore, after all? Indeed, unless we are eagle gynecologists, how many of us, truly, can ever realistically hope to witness anything remotely resembling an eagle snatch crisis?
The great thing about the internet is that no one can throw things at you. The point is, Handel’s opera Semele is about Semele, the daughter of a king. She is in love with Jupiter, but her father wishes her to marry Athamas, the Prince of Boeotia. Semele’s sister Ino is in love with Athamas, and wishes he would marry her instead. The opera is about how Jupiter returns Semele’s ardor, sweeps her up to heaven and gives her lots of love and pretty clothes, but won’t make her immortal. Meanwhile Juno, jealous, hatches a plan to cut Semele down to size – or, rather, reduce her to cinders. She and her henchwoman Iris – with some assistance from Somnus, the god of sleep – play on Semele’s vanity and trick her into asking to see Jupiter in his true form. He does, and she dies. Ino gets to marry Athamas after all, and the god of wine, Bacchus, arises from Semele’s ashes. (I guess that’s sort of poetic, right? Wine after all can make humans feel god-like, vain and unreasonable and can certainly inspire them to great flights of stupidity – after which there is often a rather unpleasant return to earth.)
This production, by Robert Carsen, is another one of those Zurich opera productions that made me wish I lived near Zurich. It’s very effective and often very funny, too. The opera itself is in English, and is performed in that language. (The libretto is by one John Congreve whose English, according to the booklet, bears “a certain similarity to the language of Shakespeare.” Is Peter Schickele writing DVD booklets now?) Handel wrote a lot of English oratorios, but most of his operas are in Italian, so I looked up what made this one different. It seems that Handel was being sneaky. He wrote the work in the 1740s as an opera, but he wanted to have it performed in a London concert series scheduled for Lent, when an oratorio would have been more appropriate. He wanted his opera to be performed in this concert series because it would increase the chances of him getting paid. So he pretended it was an oratorio. Neither the subterfuge nor the opera was a success. I can only hope that Mr. Handel got paid at least a little in the end, because it’s a pretty good opera.
The production, as the business with the newspaper headline suggests, moves the action from the ancient world to twentieth-century England. Cadmus is not the king of England, as far as I can tell – the thrones and sceptres and royal regalia are reserved for Jupiter and Juno. Cadmus is merely an important guy. It doesn’t really matter who. The general look of the production is not relentlessly detailed. In the first scene, during which portents from heaven interrupt the planned wedding of Semele and Athamas, we see rows of red velvet chairs and people in twentieth century formal wear, but the space they are in is just a large shadowy space, not specifically a church or anything like that. When we meet Juno on her throne later on, the space looks much the same. Semele’s celestial palace consists of a room with a big blue bed and a lot of clothes. In other words, the visual is not a setting – little to nothing is being said about twentieth-century England in this piece, which is fine – rather, it’s a series of little references that add color and fill out the drama. And some of these little references are pretty wonderful.
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