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Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Semele on the Town

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Though German-English composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is most widely known for the Messiah, the Water Music and the Royal Fireworks Music, his operas were what his fame rested on in his own time. Today, however, Handel's operas are mainly the province of Baroque enthusiasts and specialists.

Semele, HWV 58 (1744), though conceived and classified as an oratorio, is altogether different from Handel's other works in this genre, having a secular subject and many accompanied recitatives and da capo arias. It more closely resembles an Italian Baroque opera (albeit with a libretto in English). Indeed, with its striking libretto by William Congreve (1670-1729), one of England's most renowned dramatists of the time, Semele combines elements of the English lyric stage, Italian opera, semi-opera and masque. Its music and text are filled with emotional intensity, reflecting the passions of the characters in a way that shocked its English audiences. Indeed, such public rejection Semele had as an oratorio only reinforced the point that this is really an opera.

The Florentine Opera herein stages its first-ever production of Handel's Semele-concomitantly also the Florentine's first production of a Baroque opera, period. Renowned conductor Jane Glover (music director of Chicago's Music of the Baroque) leads members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in this recreation of John La Bouchardiere's original Scottish Opera production.

At the Pabst Theater on Feb. 27-28 and March 1.

Many a lover of the great American musical is a fan of 1949's Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra film On the Town, but not everyone knows it began its life five years earlier as the ballet Fancy Free, with lyrics by Jerome Robbins (1918-98) and music by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90); there are, after all, many changes between the two. The spirited work centers on three sailors seeking fun and adventure in New York City, features music based upon the popular styles of the day, and represents Bernstein's first foray into the world of the ballet. Denis Malinkine, ballet master of the Milwaukee Ballet, has set the oft-extracted third act of Marius Petipa's and Alexander Glazunov's 1897 ballet Raymonda, a work that also graces the stage. Finally, nationally acclaimed choreographer Adam Hougland presents a world premiere of dances set to the music of W.A. Mozart (1756-91).

Fancy Free, Act Three of Raymonda and the new Adam Hougland work are performed by the Milwaukee Ballet at Uihlein Hall on Feb. 19-22.

Early Music Now is presenting one of the few professional touring lute ensembles, the Venere Lute Quartet, in a program of Renaissance and Baroque music, 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at All Saints' Cathedral. Half of the concert will feature Dutch compositions from the 17th century; the remainder will be arrangements of works by Palestrina, Praetorius and Holborne.