Semele: Cecilia Bartoli we shall adore

Staging an oratorio like Semele is itself a questionable endeavor.  The music is wonderful, but dramatically it does more telling than showing and there are many static stretches.  Except for a few moments of wit and visual beauty, Robert Carsen’s elegantly restrained production is nothing more or less than unobtrusive.  However, tearing through all that dull dignity is Cecilia Bartoli, an irresistible one-woman hurricane of something or other.  Oh, and William Christie!

Handel-Congreve, Semele.  Theater an der Wien, September 17, 2010.   Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie with Cecilia Bartoli (Semele), Charles Workman (Jupiter/Apollo), Birgit Remmert (Juno), Malena Ernman (Ino), David Pittsinger (Cadmus/Somnus), Arnold Schoenberg Chor.  Production by Robert Carsen, choreography and staging by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Yes, this evening was very much the Cecilia Bartoli Show.  Stage appearances by the rumored new Salzburg Whitsun intendant are rare, and she is extremely popular in Vienna.  Despite the fine playing of Les Arts Florissants and some excellent performances from the rest of the cast, the audience and production’s attention was pretty much in one place.

Carsen’s minimalist production (originally created in Zürich and staged here by Elaine Tayler-Hall) is fairly strong in the Personenregie and does a good job of telling the story and developing the characters in a straightforward way without ever coming up with anything particularly interesting.  The look is generically classy mid-century British.  The spare settings amount to virtual visual quotations if you’ve seen a lot of Carsen.*  I wish that Carsen’s impeccably coiffed and gowned ladies and tuxedoed or khaki-suited men would find clothes with a little more individual flair, but it looks pretty without getting in the way, which in this case is the salient point.

Getting in the way of Cecilia Bartoli, that is, who is anything but generic.  She brings a kind of personal energy and charm that is hard to describe but bulldozes over most of the dullness in her path.  Her voice is small and seemingly takes a while to warm up, however she was always perfectly audible and sings with a palpable joy that I think you have to be a true grump not to appreciate.  She bubbles through all sorts of ornamentation with glee, she floats through slower stuff, and can even suggest, in “Endless pleasure,” endless smugness, in voice alone. 

I know Bartoli has many detractors, but I found the usual complaints inapplicable.  Aspirated coloratura?  Slightly, but we’re not talking Deutekom here.  Unsupported tone and obtrusive breaths?  Nope.  Her “Myself I shall adore” was taken slowly, which made me suspect that we were going to get some really crazy shit in the da capo.  Indeed we did, and in the da capo she stumbled and did a full face-plant onto the stage.  Then there was an audible gasp–I’m not sure if it was her or costar Remmert–and she got right up and started singing again, having missed only about a bar of music.  Brava.

Also, “Myself I shall adore”? “Endless pleasure”? “You’ve undone me”?  Does any opera (er, oratorio) have more suggestive aria incipits?

Charles Workman sang beautifully as Jupiter with a smallish but well-projected and refined lyric tenor.  Neither Malena Ernman as Ino nor Birgit Remmert as Ino and Juno are contralto boomers and both seemed slightly miscast vocally, though Ernman had some impressive very low notes and Remmert indeed boomed in a few Wagnerian mezzo upper-register bits.  Yes, that Malena Ernman.  The tessiatura, though, seemed off for both of them.  But Ernman acted her somewhat thankless role with striking emotional poignancy and Remmert, dressed as Elizabeth II look-alike and given the most comic business in the cast (along with Kerstin Erkman as Iris), showed fine comic timing.

The production has some lovely visuals: Sommus (sung with authority by Met regular David Pittsinger, who also sang Cadmus) rising from an evenly spaced sea of sleepers, Juno surrounded by a majestic cape, the stiff but beautifully coordinated choral masses (who occasionally, to indicate amorous moments, break up their statuesque observation to start making out with each other, could have done without that).  It also has a few funny ones, best of all the staging of “Iris, hence, away,” with formidable Juno finally proffering a British Airways ticket.  The Arnold Schoenberg Choir sounded excellent but I couldn’t understand a damn word they were saying.  The principals’ English diction was excellent.

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants sounded fantastic, as usual, and the quiet moments of the score had intimacy and delicacy that would have been impossible in a larger theater, though a few experiments in really quiet singing barely made it up to me in the third ring.  A few tempos in interludes seemed almost gratuitously fast, but the orchestral virtuosity is as thrilling as all the vocal doodads found elsewhere, and since this isn’t a piece with a ton for the orchestra to do it was nice to hear a group this good get to show off what it can do, if briefly.

Not exactly your average opera, but a great night out.  This production is available on DVD in its Zürich iteration with some of the same cast.

All photos copyright Armin Bardel (from the Theater an der Wien’s excellent press site)

Video of this production, “Myself I shall adore”

*Dude has an aesthetic, at least.  Though Cavaradossi’s painting is nowhere to be seen, the opening church looks a lot like his Tosca, and the giant diagonally placed bed with billowing sheets… well, that’s a general kind of setting, but it’s exactly the same as his Poppea.  Something was also ringing bells from his Capriccio, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen that one to remember exactly what.

You may also like

1 Comment

  1. Everything is ringing bells from his Capriccio! I saw it on DVD a couple of weeks ago, and those gilded chairs look like they've been brought directly from the Palais Garnier.

    So you say Bartoli's charisma does miracles live? In the recordings, I always end up seeing the same tone (excited, manic, girly). Though I love those clips where you see her vocal cords taking over the running of the entire body: freakish in the best possible way. Kind of "oh what the hell, I'll let them do whatever they want until the end of this aria".

    Good news about the Whitsun. Finally a woman gets appointed head of something in the opera world.