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August 10, 2009 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]



Opera or oratorio? The New Zealand Music School’s production of Semele falls happily somewhere between, bringing the sterile venue of the Adam Concert Room to life with simple yet spectacular staging, and animated performances from the powerful leads to a lively conductor and a strong chorus.

Everything is prepeared for the marriage of Princess Semele (Rose Blake) to Prince Athamus (Kieran Rayner), but Semele runs from the ceremony. We discover her sister, Ino (Bianca Andrew) is in love with Athamus and it is recounted that Semele has been abducted by Jupiter (Michael Gray) in the form of an eagle. Jupiter’s wife, a gilded Juno (Laura Dawson), the Goddess of marriage, is sick of her husband’s playing around and devises a plan with the assistance of Iris, the messenger goddess (Olga Gryniewicz), here portrayed as a cheeky pixie-like character, to destroy Semele. All the performances are strong, but particular mention must be made of Rose Blake, who is fascinating to watch (and of course wonderful to listen to) in the hugely demanding role of Semele, Bianca Andrew as Ino and Olga Gryniewicz, who makes Iris (whose role has been expanded in this production) a real star of the show.

The audience surrounded the thrust stage on three sides, with the orchestra on the fourth. The use of the stairs to the upper gallery level give us a sense of the two realms this story occurs in. A large white cushioned seat is centre stage. Most spectacular are the clouds that float above the wedding ceremony, and drop down to ground level as we enter the realm ‘above’ and double as Jupiter and Semele’s bed sheets.

The chorus did a fine job as wedding guests, gods, nymphs and naiads. The characters’ interaction with the audience is fun and the overall effect keeps us alert, but the convention of chorus members speaking directly to the audience as the main action occurs is perhaps overused and sometimes seems a bit tacky next to the grandeur of the main action and singing.

The tragic ending seems to come about very suddenly, loosing potential for the theatricality. A footnote to the action is announced on a tabloid-like flier, dropped from above onto the audience (a further reminder that we exist in a realm below these heavenly creatures). It’s a cool effect but I was so amused by the flier (detailing that the foetus of Bacchus, god of wine, sex and theatre had been saved from Semele’s smoldering womb and incubated in Jupiter’s thigh) that I didn’t have a chance to be affected by Semele’s death. In a concert venue it is pretty difficult to show Jupiter descend and burn Semele with her lightning bolts, but the effect of it should still be felt, rather than undermined by distracting us with reading material. I guess what it comes down to is that it was a beautifully theatrical oratorio, but with such a divine theatrical story, I really really wanted it to be in the full force of an opera. Or at least to feel the full force of opera.

New Zealand School of Music
Adam Concert Room
Directed by Sara Brodie
Musical Direction by Michael Vinten
With: Semele (soprano): Amelia Berry (23rd, 26th) Rose Blake (24th), Jupiter (tenor): Michael Gray, Juno (mezzo): Rachel Day (23rd, 26th), Laura Dawson (24th), Ino (mezzo): Bryony Williams (23rd, 26th), Bianca Andrew (24th), Iris (soprano): Olga Gryniewicz, Athamus (baritone): Kieran Rayner, Somnus (baritone): Josh Kidd, Cadmus (baritone): Isaac Stone, Apollo/Priest (tenor): Jason Henderson

Wedding Guests, Zephyrs and Gods: Bridget Costello, Sophie Kemp, Carmen Mouton, Imogen Thirlwall, Thomas Atkins, Thomas Barker, Simon Harnden, Thomas O’Brien

Reviewed Friday 24 July


About the Author ()

Fiona was named "Recessionista" in the ASPA Fashion Awards 2009 for her Takaka op-shop frock and spray painted shoes. She co-edits the arts section and also likes to write about women and other stuff.

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