Opera Boston’s initial collaboration with the Boston Baroque ensemble yielded such a marvellous account of Gluck’s Alceste that one eagerly awaited their next joint effort. Three years later they are at last together again, offering a Semele that, however welcome, failed to match its predecessor.
Sam Helfrich’s production began promisingly in the kind of sterile hotel reception room (sets by Andromache Chalfant) that can double for corporate meetings, with Semele so depressed over her impending marriage to the Boeotian prince Athamas that she lies in a lethargic stupor on a dinner table. Spirited to the heavens by her lover Jupiter, she sings of her “endless pleasure” as the chief god transmits her image by video camera back to the wedding guests.
But the celestial scenes, for which the set proved less effective, didn’t gain the traction they should. And at the end the mortal Semele, duped by Juno into demanding that Jupiter appear in (lethal) godly splendour, here comes back to life and is again pressured to marry Athamas, the drama oddly coming full circle. She and her sister Ino, who loves Athamus and is supposed to marry him, according to Congreve’s libretto, make a thoroughly forlorn pair as the chorus sings “Happy, happy” in a bizarre musical-dramatic mismatch.
Lisa Saffer sang exquisitely, with expert diction and lovely vocal shadings. Her Semele, however, had a misplaced worldly-wise quality, and her lacy, smock-like dress was not flattering (costumes by Nancy Leary). Scott Ramsay’s Jupiter looked very corporate in a three-piece suit, but his soft-grained tenor made a touching moment of “Where’er you walk” as he gazed tenderly on his inamorata and her sister as they flipped through a photo album. Margaret Lattimore’s competent Juno was upstaged by Amanda Forsythe’s bright, keenly sung Iris; Paula Murrihy’s Ino was likewise vibrantly sung and acted. As Cadmus, David Kravitz exaggerated his displeasure with his daughters, but, as Somnus, gave compelling accounts of the sleep god’s back-to-back arias. Tai Oney’s countertenor sounded weak as Athamas.
Although the score was significantly cut, with Handel’s da capo aria being especially hard hit, Martin Pearlman’s vital reading made one grateful for this rare opportunity to experience an American opera production with period instrument support.