In defence of the bizarre: Semele at the COC

Posted on May 12, 2012

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Handel’s Semele at the Canadian Opera Company (La Monnaie production). Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini, director & set designer Zhang Huan. Semele Jane Archibald, Juno/Ino Allyson McHardy, Jupiter William Burden, Iris Katherine Whyte. Complete cast & creative and ticket info HERE.

Should the acclaimed artists from other disciplines be asked to direct opera? I would argue:  absolutely. If there’s a work that interests them and that they’d like to reinvent, I would run to see an opera stage directed by some of the most significant visual/media artists of today, or some of my favourites like Rabih Mroué, Carey Young or even the awful Renzo Martens. Operatic works are not as precious as not to allow anybody but people who’ve paid their opera directing dues touch them. Hybridization should be welcomed. (For an example of hybridization that made the local critics rave, see Coleman Lemieux’s From the House of Mirth.) Aliens should be regularly invited in. Because there are many stage directors who are certain what those works that they are directing are about and have stopped seeing them anew.

And when you ask a prominent outsider to direct a piece, of course they’ll bring their own practises and their own current obsessions to the work. If you ever ask, say, Michael Haneke, Marina Abramović, Slavoj Žižek or Pina Bausch to direct an opera, you will get exactly those artists and what they think it’s important to say with the tools that they know how to use.

I am reiterating all this because I’m trying to understand why Zhang Huan’s wacky production of Semele received such a consensus of media condemnation after it opened in Toronto. It’s a peculiar, topsy-turvy, whimsical, self-indulgent, funny, bawdy, illogical production that won’t leave anybody indifferent, and there’s much to say for that. (You know what to expect from Carsen or Wilson or Zeffirelli. Get surprised sometimes, unpleasantly even, if you can bear it.)

Zhang Huan is an internationally-engaged Chinese artist operating in the media of performance art, installation, public art, photography, video and sculpture. After leaving China for NYC and working there, he returned to his home country and is now based in Shanghai. As this really good piece by Murray Whyte shows, Zhang Huan is one of those Chinese artists who, give or take a case of censorship or three, precariously walks the line of what is allowed to be said in China. He has strong interest in Tibet and often identifies the remnants of obliterated Tibetan culture and rethinks and repurposes them in his works of art. Some of his “ash paintings” made out of cinders that he collects at Buddhist temples can now be seen at the AGO. He is also interested in his country’s political history and some of its more recent ravages, as well as the effects of the brutally speeded up modernization on the society’s least powerful. He is not a stranger to the subjects of love, loss, the finiteness of human in nature either.

Some of this is visible in his Semele, co-produced by La Monnaie and the KT Wong Foundation and rented by the COC (so relax, pearl-clutchers, this Semele is not COC’s to keep). When it was performed in Beijing in 2010, the opera received harsh government response due to its perceived embrace of Tibet– the monks’ robes reminded the apparatchiks of the Tibetan monks’ garb.  The COC production has a Tibetan folk singer chanting at one point between the acts (he received an audible surge of applause at the curtain call last night, so obviously in attendance was the audience who knew what featuring anything Tibetan in anything Chinese means). Some of the objects on stage relate to some of Huan’s previous work – the horny donkey that ends up humping a column is possibly this donkey’s brother.

But not all of the staging of Semele is to be understood within the context of ZH’s other work. There are many scenes that work really well as operatic theatre, a discipline by Huan’s own admission unknown to him. Here’s some of the things that worked:

The video art during the overture and at the end of the opera. Unless you engage a corps de ballet, you’d better think of something to engage the audience attention during the long orchestral sequences, and video art can work for these purposes really well. In this opening video, we learn about the background story to the dismantled temple which Huan saved and used as the set. As with most video art, it’s the editing and the visual aspect that are equally if not more important than the narration offered by the characters. The final image, an ash photograph that is being blurred and cleaned by the water drops shows the woman from the initial video story, whose lover the husband killed and paid for it with his own life. But in the context, we may or may not care whether that is her; a document becomes automatically fiction if put in the context of fiction. We are not watching a story about the same group of characters from the beginning till the end. Stories may overlap or just be placed next to one another for an effect.

Many of the key scenes in the opera work just fine. The scenes including Semele and Jupiter have some serious sexual frisson. There is a stylized, slow-mo orgy happening in the shaded corners of Arcadia, which is only apposite. The character of Juno is superbly placed in scenes and directed, including her little bridging scenes of recapitulation with sidekick Iris, and especially the Myself I Shall Adore trickery.

It is absolutely fine that the final conciliatory chorus that makes everything alright by announcing that out of the ashes of Semele, god Bacchus is born is cut. Nothing of essence is taken away – unless your idea of a good ending is Hollywood studio films, in which case, I can’t help you. Finishing the opera on a melancholy note actually adds to it.

What, then, did not work in this staging? Probably the fact that I had to fight a creeping sense of arbitrariness all too often. Individual moments can make sense or defy sense, and that’s OK, but I had a general impression that Huan was engaged in this project because the funders willing to back him up were easy to find. (He is often described as having a ‘rock-star’ status in China, and is himself something of a corporation with large staff). I am also not sure why he decided to choose Semele of all operatic works. What is it about Semele that grabbed him and took him out of the safety of his own artistic discipline? It remains unclear. What is more obvious is that his triple strike in Toronto – public art project with a condominium developer, an AGO exhibit and a COC production all at the same time – demonstrates rarely seen institutional and funding muscle.

But you program with who you can get and what you can get funded. The individual and corporate sponsorship of artists is nothing new in the North American opera houses, and will grow even more important in the future. And choosing ZH to direct isn’t such a terrible idea, either. It’s certainly a brave artistic decision in the local context. And that makes up for a lot.

I have not said a word about the music or the singers. I am interviewing Semele’s conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini next week so there are many many words in the offing.   

Photos by Michael Cooper. Top: Jane Archibald as Semele. Middle: Archibald with William Burden as Jupiter. Bottom: Allyson McHardy as Juno with Katherine Whyte as Iris.