Baroque opera needs an especially inventive director to relate to contemporary audiences. John La Bouchardière presented a deeply witty staging of Handel's Semele at Florentine Opera last weekend, a run of three performances at the Pabst Theater. The production combined stylized period movement with video projection. The scenery, a recreation of designs by Giuseppe Di Iorio, became a vital part of the direction. Semele ascends to the realm of the gods, magically conjured with video of space, planets and moons. Extraordinary, captivating costumes from Scottish Opera completed the impression.
Semeleis officially an oratorio, though constructed much like an opera. La Bouchardière began with a startling reference to the piece's genesis, with chorus and soloists sitting on the stage dressed in concert black. It left the audience baffled but intrigued. This was a brilliant touch.
Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, in the double role of Juno and Ino, is an example of the terrific, vivid American Handel singer on the scene today, fluent in the style. As Semele soprano Jennifer Aylmer showed agility, beauty of tone, grace and charm. One particularly memorable aria about vanity had her intricately interacting with video of herself. There was occasional inconsistency; flights into the upper range became a bit shrill. Bass Jason Hardy, as Somnus/Cadmus, sang with unforced ease, his rich, lyric sound an ideal match for the philosophical and paternal role. Tenor Robert Breault, as Jupiter, had style and presence, but his voice, showing a bit of wear, was not always able to execute his intentions.
Jane Glover, music director of Chicago's Music of the Baroque, led ably, drawing incisive playing from the small Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra ensemble in the pit. The overture and entr'actes especially were evidence that MSO can convincingly sound like a Baroque ensemble. Minor fuzziness elsewhere surely could have been remedied with more rehearsal.
This Semele was a standout success, showing what the Florentine can do at its very best. I hope this artistic care and invention can continue into its more standard repertory.