Semele by George Frideric Handel is the tale of the affair between a mortal girl named Semele (Laura McCauley) and the immortal Jupiter (Joseph Michalczyk-Lupa), and what results when Jupiter’s vengeful wife Juno (Hector Gonzales Smith), the goddess of marriage, finds out about it. Based on one of the origin tales of the Greek/Roman gods and goddesses, the story itself is naturally wrought with drama, passion and tragedy. I honestly had no idea of what to expect from Semele, as I have never seen an opera before. Would I be seeing a fantastically mawkish tale? A complete train wreck of emotions as the three lead characters, fantastically selfish and vain, tromp around the stage? Or just classical white togas and dry lines?
Ithaca College’s Department of Theatre Arts’ production of Semele — directed by Ithaca College graduate and professor R.B. Schlather — caught me off-guard in a lot ways, and I was all the more glad for it. Vivid, bright and in constant motion, the show was modern, amazingly vibrant and colorful — rich in colors, but tasteful and cohesive in its palette. Our eyes feasted on pale blue bodies, silver headdresses and purple disco lights. On the stage we saw flower wreaths here and there and showers of green, green dollars. In some ways, the props for the stage were perhaps not so great in number or complexity overall, but the relative simplicity of say, a single green, patterned couch, was made deeper with small details, an enchanting chorus and clever plays with lighting, designed by lighting designer Erik Herskowitz ‘16. One of my favorite scenes was when Semele sat enchanted by the television with the chorus surrounding her, the light of the screen brightly illuminating her face in slightly different tones and leaving shadows stretching behind the cast.
The set and costume played an important role in how the story itself was portrayed. With a stark, clean light wooden box as the main component in which our characters play in, there is an inevitable sort of modern twist to the story. It’s in the details, the work of scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman and costume designer Greg Robbins — Iris’s bright red, shiny lace-up platform boots, the yellow button-down shirt of Semele’s bespectacled father and Juno’s headphones, cigarettes and magazines.
All of these bring quirks to old classical characters and make for vibrant people that we can better understand, more so than an entire cast dressed in white sheets. The actors did an excellent job of breathing life into these additions with playful, dynamic expressions, comically histrionic movements and a flair of bright, humorous drama. There was dancing, there was finger-snapping and there was some very impressive singing.
Even between the prancing on stage, all the players filled the room with a full, steady sound that was bolstered by a lovely live orchestral performance overseen by musical director Blaise Bryski. The acoustics of the theatre did end up making solos hard to understand at times, but the play’s lines running across the top of the stage made that inconsequential in the end. The combination of a contemporary set and lively acting created a new Semele, one that is far more humorous and light-hearted than one might have expected from such an old classic.
From Juno’s crazy sobbing on her wooden throne to Semele’s coy expressions of manipulation, the production was utterly charming with its contemporary elements and eye for detail. The opening night was filled with laughter and cheers. With its subconscious ability to draw the audience in, I found myself consciously reminding myself to close my mouth and stop gawking. If you asked, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint what drew me or the rest of the audience in so quickly — it was simply engaging, shocking and beautiful in its use of color, and fun to watch. It’s a show full of whimsy and delight, and it has definitely hooked me into opera and the rest of Ithaca College’s 2015-2016 season.
Semele will be performed two more times on Thursday and Saturday in the Hoerner Theatre in the Dillingham Center at Ithaca College.
Correction: Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this story incorrectly said that Blaise Bryski was the musical director. In fact, Geoffrey McDonald served as the musical director.
Catherine Hwang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.