Kicking off the Georg Friedrich Händel celebration year of 2009 (the 250th anniversary of Händel's death), it was pretty easy to pick the revival of Semele at the Opernhaus Zürich however wedged between a bevy of current Italian superstar productions (mainly, Teatro Comunale di Bologna's I Puritani with our two favorite leading men, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Juan Diego Florez). But after running a few linear algebraic equations, where la Ceci + La Scintilla + Carsen + Händel x Starbucks = EPIC, Zürich it the clear winner.
Next time under the dry, biting, ruthless winds of wintertime Zürich, O.C. will wrap herself in a few more layers of cashmere. This time, her Celine patent leather black booties, Jil Sander black pod cashmere dress, and Prada cropped black jacket just weren't enough to lock out the chill. We consider ourselves duly warned for next time...but at least this time we warmed-up with endless cups of (ummm, seriously marked-up) Starbucks.
We've already gushed about William Christie's elegant and gratifying sound with period-piece ensemble, La Scintilla -- and 48 hours later, those stripped-down tones still haunt us. La Scintilla, which principal concertmaster of the Orchester der Oper Zürich's Ada Pesch founded together with Oper Zürich, is an ensemble of young musicians who finger and blow (omg) gorgeously historical instruments, coloring a catalog of mainly Baroque works. We were reeling under their enchanting, purified sound of understated woodwinds, precise strings, and a smattering of buffered horns. Maestro Christie conducted with such sparkle and enthusiasm and elegance that even boring old George H. would have clapped his hands like crazy, and forgiven director Carsen for that scene with Juno brandishing a giant glitter dildo. O hai! La Scintilla will perform Händel's Agrippina in May -- we're soooo there (and before that, Carsen's Alcina comes to la Scala).
We had high expectations of hearing la Bartoli on the opera stage, after falling under her spell a few months ago when we caught her in live recital (also with la Scintilla) at Torino's Auditorium Giovanni Agnelli @ Lingotto. And we have a weakness for Semele, that beautiful work of compelling drama -- the cautionary tale of the bad things that will happen to you, mere human, if you decide to mingle with the gods -- a most British tale of the steely nature of social order that premiered, appropriately, in Haendel's adoptive city, London.
Director Robert Carsen painted the priestess in particularly human shades, tainted with vices and weakness shared by mortals -- mainly vanity, which was fully executed during her memorable aria, "Myself I shall adore." Bartoli made it easy work convincing us of Semele's giddy vanity, completely overcome with her own bejeweled reflection. She suffused key parts of William Congreve's English libretto with her delicious, light humor and brought a bit of spark to Robert Carsen's toned-down direction. "Endless pleasure, endless love" was a highlight, as la Ceci pranced around the stage weightless, barefoot, and wrapped temptingly in a bed sheet -- she just soars. Her trademark coloratura set the house on fire and provoked a few spontaneous applause sessions throughout the evening. Gorgeous ornaments and agile passages having no problems projecting through the small shoebox that is the Opernhaus, la Ceci, as always, melded with the orchestra as easily as a spoken dialogue -- her good humor is infectious.
Canadian director Robert Carsen's send-up of the British royal family was overt and gleeful, although it has been apparently toned down since the death of Princess Diana (Carsen's Semele production has been around since 1996, where it premiered at the Festival d'Aix en Provence). Our former love/hate (more love than hate) relationship with the monstrously talented Carsen has expanded into a new gray mousy areas, as we were impressed by his direction of Semele (the merciless grabbybutt habits of Jupiter a humorous high point of the evening), but not blown away as we were in March 2008 with his Salome in Torino. When he's on point, Carsen's witty and biting and perfectly sarcastic, pulling in classic pop icons and lambasting them appropriately. Not to mention his unabashed and unflinching, well, eroticism that breathes so much s3xiness into his visions. We can always count on Carsen to shake it up and make us sweat.
Friday night at Zurich we were slightly crushing on Carsen again...his simple sets and clever direction left us appropriately breathless (especially the scene with twinkling stars and twilight, la Ceci balancing an illuminated globe -- Chaplin-like --in her outstretched arms). And we understand how hard it is to compete with the Zurich opera house's gilded rococo cream and gold interior, gorgeous oils depicting pastoral scenes painted on the ceiling. This historic theater -- which hosted the premiere of Berg's Lulu in 1937 and Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron in 1957 -- is endearingly intimate and refreshingly historic (you almost expect the incandescent glow of limelight illuminating the singers), and the theater retains a miniature dollhouse feel (the orchestra is really just so tiny, even compared to Scala's moderate layout).
Semele's sister, Ino, was sung convincingly and expertley as Liliana Nikiteanu. But more captivating was Birgit Remmert's Juno. In homage to Queen Elizabeth II (to la Ceci's Diana), Remmert's zest was inertia, a zaftig goddess straight from Mel Brooks's casting genius. Delightful comic relief was extended by Rebeca Olvera's Iris, a pint-sized messenger depicted as a bumbling, nebbish secretary who experienced her own s3xual awakening when she was lustily ambushed by Anton Scharinger's Somnus. We were awed by Charles Workman's Jupiter, who exhibited well against la Ceci, peppered with believable chemistry and passion. Thomas Michael Allen as Athamas also held his role well on stage. We also applauded perfect English diction from the entire cast. Chor der Oper Zürich sang brilliantly and adhered to Carsen's always-entertaining expectations of the chorus as an organic, high-visibility element.
What remains with you, in the end, is the way Carsen's concept -- his satire on celebrity culture and on the inherently heartless laws of high society -- you just can't win with those people can you -- and his biting wit and talent for little clever sight gags -- mixed beautifully with Christie's delicately nuanced reading of the score; and it's interesting to note how you basically need two geniuses to stop Bartoli from running away with the show, she's generally so unstoppable.