The Wall Street Journal: An Opera Company Matures in the West

The Wall Street Journal
Heidi Waleson
April 11, 2016

Opera Omaha is a small company with big ambitions. It is embracing the latest trends in American opera—community engagement, alternative venues, contemporary operas and other kinds of forward-thinking artistic programming—along with standard repertory. Last week, the company announced a new spring festival as part of its 60th anniversary season in 2017-18, featuring the world premiere of an opera commissioned from composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, the Brooklyn-based creators of the much-anticipated Breaking the Waves, slated for Opera Philadelphia this fall. The artistic director of the festival, which will also feature a second opera production and other off-site events, is James Darrah, director and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based design and production company Chromatic. This interdisciplinary artists’ collective has already worked on three productions with Opera Omaha, and the coming festival is being envisioned as a kind of extended artistic residency, with creators from the two coasts meeting in the middle of the country.

This weekend's production of Handel's Semele demonstrated both Opera Omaha's ambitions and some of its challenges. Mr. Darrah and his fellow Chromatic members took charge of the staging: Stephen Stubbs, conductor and lutenist, directed the music, importing an admirable cast of young principal singers and eliciting lively, historically informed results from the Omaha Opera Chorus and members of the Omaha Symphony.

In the opera, Semele, about to be married off to Athamas, a man she doesn't love, invokes Jupiter, who carries her off to a celestial love nest. But she is still not content, and the jealous Juno uses Semele's ambitions for immorality to bring about her downfall. This tale of mortals entangled with deities lends itself to all kinds of interpretation--one memorable version, at the New York City Opera in 2006, envisioned it as a jaunty JFK-Marilyn Monroe matchup. Mr. Darrah's abstract treatment went to the other extreme, stressing its tragedy, which ended up being perhaps gloomier than William Congreve's witty English libretto intends.

The staging employed backdrops, projections and dance-based movement rather than built scenery and props. Co-scenic and lighting designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock and projection designer Adam Larsen made the world of the mortals dark and oppressive, with sacrificial blood and altar flames that flared and died. The black-clad chorus, choreographed in heavy, ritualistic patterns by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, became a frightened community, dependent on the whims of the gods. Four male dancers lofted Semele above their heads, giving her an otherworldly buoyancy.

Things were lighter in the celestial scenes: Billowing silvery fabric panels became the backdrop for luminous, flowing projections; Sarah Schuessler's costumes, wrapped and draped like modern Japanese couture, were in pale, neutral hues; and the chorus moved with more ease and abandon.

Mr. Darrah even made a dancer a character: The mezzo who doubles as Ino--Semele's sister--and Juno sang Ino's music from the pit, while a dancer, Janice Lancaster Larsen, enacted the role onstage. It was an ingenious solution to the impersonation problem of Part II, when Juno pretends to be Ino and persuades Semele to ask Jupiter for the gift that will destroy her. But in Part I, Ms. Larsen's most strenuous efforts could not enliven the lengthy Athamas-Ino exchange (she loves him and wants to replace his lost Semele; he ignores her) and make us care about these two secondary characters. Here, as in some other places in the production, concept trumped narrative.

The main challenge, however, was the acoustically problematic, 2,500-seat Orpheum Theater. The orchestra needed a few more strings, and the singing didn't bloom, though the singers sounded far more present and alive when they ventured out onto the passerelle, a walkway around the front of the orchestra pit. As a result, the production, with its relentless color palette of darks and neutrals, felt even more two-dimensional.

Mary Feminear was a charming Semele, her luminous soprano full of longing and sensual promise, and her coloratura playfully coy in "Endless pleasure, endless love" and brilliantly pyrotechnical in "Myself I shall adore." You actually felt sorry for her when she was incinerated at the end, rather than thinking her a nitwit who got what she deserved. Mezzo Peabody Southwell brought weight and bossy authority to Juno and a poignant sadness to Ino, however disembodied.

Ray Chenez, a bright-voiced countertenor, had agility but not much volume as Athamas. As Jupiter, William Ferguson's clean, direct tenor showed more presence and complexity when he was out on the passerelle; "Where e'er you walk" had a serene sweetness. Aubrey Allicock doubled effectively as Cadmus, Semele's father, and Somnus, the god of sleep, while Liz Lang, as Juno's servant Iris, provided some much welcome comic relief.