Arts & Events

A Sumptuous French Opera: Marin Marais’ SÉMÉLÉ

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday August 15, 2015 - 08:08:00 AM

As the centerpiece of its Versailles Festival, American Bach Soloists presented on Thursday evening, August 13, a concert performance of the 1709 opera Sémélé by Marin Marais. This opera, which preceded Handel’s rendering of the same story by several decades, was a huge undertaking for ABS’s Music Director, Jeffrey Thomas. The musical forces involved were monumental: a 53-piece orchestra, 17 chorus members, and 12 solo singers, amounting to 83 persons onstage counting Jeffrey Thomas who conducted. The results were well worth the effort, for this was a lively, musically rewarding performance of a French Baroque opera that long languished in oblivion. In fact, Marais’ Sémélé was neglected for almost 300 years until the French group Le Concert Spirituel, led by Hervé Niquet, presented the work at the Festival International de l’Opéra Baroque in Beaune, France, in 2006, the 350th anniversary year of Marin Marais’ birth. The current ABS presentation of Marais’ Sémélé at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which repeats on Friday, August 14, is believed to be the first this opera has received outside of France. 

Following the format established by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who, together with his librettist Philippe Quinault, prescribed that French tragédie lyrique should be comprised of five acts and a prologue based on classical myths, Marais’ Sémélé tells the tale of Jupiter’s passionate courting of the Theban princess Semele. Jupiter (Zeus in Greek) descends from Mount Olympus disguised as Idas, a mere mortal, and ardently woos Semele, who is promised by her father, Cadmus, to a Theban warrior, Adraste. Semele responds to the wooing of Idas, but she is reluctant to go against the wishes of her father. An indignant Jupiter then confesses his true identity, and thus wins over Semele, who is flattered by the love of the foremost god of the Greek (and Roman) pantheon.  

However, Adraste is bitter at Semele’s betrayal of their betrothal, and he enlists Juno, the long-suffering wife of Jupiter, to punish Semele. Juno, disguised as Beroe, an aging servant of Semele’s, plants a seed of doubt in Semele’s mind. Perhaps Jupiter is not who he says he is but merely an imposter. Juno urges Semele to seek proof of Jupiter’s godhead. Let him display himself in all his celestial glory, Juno advises, knowing full well that no mortal may gaze on such godhead without being consumed in fire and turned to ash. Semele falls for the bait, and would indeed be turned to ash except for the mercy of Jupiter, who raises her to the heavens as a constellation in the firmament. Jupiter also rescues Semele’s unborn son, Bacchus (Dionysos), from Semele’s womb, protects the fetus in his own thigh, and delivers the child from his own body. But this part of the story is not told in Marais’ Sémélé, which ends with Semele’s apotheosis. 

The Prologue features a Priest and Priestess of Bacchus who lead a crowd of celebrants in praise of Bacchus and his gift of wine. Soprano Grace Srinivasan was a vocally bright Priestess, and baritone Ben Kazez was a robust Priest. Midway through the Prologue, Apollo descends. Ably sung by tenor Matthew Hill, Apollo bids the crowd to welcome his brother Bacchus, born of the same father, Jupiter. Apollo asks the Muses to recount the story of how Bacchus came to be the child of Semele and Jupiter. 

As Act I begins, Cadmus, king of Thebes, informs his daughter Semele that he has promised her to Adraste, a Theban prince who has just defeated the forces of an enemy of Thebes in battle. Cadmus is sung by baritone Corbin Phillips, who began somewhat hesitantly but grew stronger as the opera progressed. Semele, sung by soprano Rebecca Myers Hoke, confides to her confidante, Dorine, that she loves Idas, a stranger, (Jupiter in disguise), who has ardently courted her. As Semele, Rebecca Myers Hoke has a light, lyric soprano with near perfect diction in French. However, one might have wished for more vocal power in passages that call for power. As Dorine, soprano Chelsea Morris has a darker tone, which paired well with Hoke’s higher and lighter voice. Their duets were especially effective, as in their Act I duet warning each other of the two-faced aspects of love. A lovely march featuring trumpets and drums announces a victory parade in honor of Adraste. Sung by tenor Steven Brennfleck, Adraste addresses Semele and seeks her consent to be his wife. Semele hesitates, but says she’ll obey her father. Adraste exults in his triumph. However, a thunderstorm erupts and is taken as an ill omen. 

A side-plot now involves the god Mercury (disguised at first as a mortal, Arbate), who woos Dorine. Robustly sung by baritone David Rugger, Mercury/ 

Arbate is successful in his courtship. However, Jupiter (disguised as Idas) and Semele engage in a somewhat testy dialogue in which Semele reveals how torn she is between the desires of her heart and the call of duty. Toward the end of this dialogue, Jupiter reveals to Semele his true identity. To demonstrate his powers, Jupiter, powerfully sung by bass Christopher Besch, transforms the woods into a palace with gardens and fountains. The chorus sings of birdcalls that delight the ear. Now the orchestra launches an extensive and very beautiful Chaconne featuring a tambourine and castanets. This Chaconne is no mere divertissement but rather suggests in musical terms the delightful, harmon-ious transformation effected by Jupiter of the woodsy environs. Adraste, who has been lurking nearby, confronts Semele and asks why she betrays him. Semele replies that the love of a god releases her from her betrothal. Indignant, Adraste questions whether Idas is truly a god in disguise. Thus ends Act II. 

After intermission, Act III develops Adraste’s efforts at revenge, his enlisting of Juno in his plot, and Juno’s jealous hatred of the beautiful Semele. Juno is ably sung by mezzo-soprano Sara LeMesh. Midway through Act III is an agitated choral air for the Furies, invoked by Juno to aid her revenge. Act IV returns to the sub-plot of Mercury and Dorine’s love, offering a happy, unclouded contrast to the tormented love of Jupiter and Semele. At the close of Act IV, Semele asks Jupiter for one thing. Whatever you ask, I promise to give, says Jupiter. Egged on by Juno, Semele demands from Jupiter that he show himself in all his celestial glory. Jupiter despairs that this will bring about Semele’s death. 

Act V opens with Semele sure of her victory, and Adraste sure that one way or another, he will soon be dead. Cadmus appears and utters a fussy, fastidious prayer that the all-powerful god may protect and bless the Theban people. How-ever, an earthquake erupts, signalling the imminent appearance of Jupiter. The earthquake is rendered musically in agitated cellos, violas, and violins. A chorus sings in fear. Adraste senses his imminent demise. Semele rejoices in what she deems will be her own beautiful death as Jupiter gives proof that he was indeed her lover. Adraste is reduced to ash, but Semele is saved by the love of Jupiter, who instructs the Zephyrs to carry Semele into the heavens, where she will reign forever as an equal to his wife Juno. 

All in all, this concert production of Marin Marais’ Sémélé gives abundant notice that Marin Marais was far more than just a gifted viola da gambist, a notion that might have been furthered by the 1991 film Tous les Matins du Monde. As Sémélé clearly demonstrates, Marais, who briefly took over the Paris Opera after the death of Lully, was also a consummate composer of opera, and an important transition figure between Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau in the history of French Baroque opera.