'Semele': An uncommon opera at PLU
ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI; Staff writer
In the opera rehearsal hall at Pacific Lutheran University, student John Marzano is singing about lust. As Somnus, the god of sleep, he’s rehearsing Act II of Handel’s opera “Semele,” and promising Jupiter’s wife Juno that he’ll send the chief god erotic dreams as part of Juno’s plot to do away with her husband’s mortal lover Semele.
Typical opera drama, of course. But what’s not typical is the music and the man at the harpsichord who’s playing it: Internationally known director and lutenist Stephen Stubbs is in Tacoma to direct one of the few period-performance baroque operas South Sounders ever get a chance to see. It opens next week.
“(To do a full baroque opera at college level) is not common at all, and to have an international figure in early music to lead the students – we’re incredibly fortunate,” said James Brown, the PLU voice department chairman.
At the rehearsal, Brown is taking Marzano and his colleagues through their blocking of the Somnus-Juno scene. As stage director for “Semele,” Brown is responsible for more than the acting – he’s the catalyst for the whole project, which he hopes will become a regular event at PLU.
“It all started when I took the job here,” said Brown, a renowned early music tenor who frequently sings around the region in addition to teaching PLU students. “Stephen was just moving back to Seattle after living in Europe for 30 years. We got to know each other, and I asked him to do ‘Orfeo.’ ”
That was in 2006; the PLU production of Monteverdi’s famous opera “Orfeo” was fully mounted in 2008, with Brown doing stage direction (something he’s adding to his already impressive résumé) and Stubbs directing the music.
After an international career of playing with some of the best early music ensembles around, the lute player who grew up in Seattle has now turned full-time to directing opera with groups such as Tragicomedia and the Boston Early Music Festival – and Tacoma students reap the benefit.
“What’s fascinating about ‘Semele’ is that it’s such a one-off,” said Stubbs, breaking off from coaching the singers for a lunch break. “Handel was doing lots of opera in London in the 1720s, and then in the 1730s his oratorios were going down well with the public. They were cheaper and easier than dealing with expensive and difficult Italian opera stars. But then in 1744, two years after he wrote the ‘Messiah,’ we have ‘Semele.’ ”
Based on an opera script by English poet William Congreve, “Semele” tells the story of a mortal who loved Jupiter and, though perishing, created a famous son from the union: Bacchus, god of wine and good times. Handel tried to pass “Semele” off as an oratorio during a Lenten religious concert series, but the audience wasn’t fooled by the lust-sex-infidelity plot. Actually, Handel left staging instructions in the score, Stubbs noted, and obviously still considered “Semele” an opera.
“It’s ripe for staging,” Stubbs said.
The PLU production, though, will happen in Lagerquist Hall – known for good acoustics, but completely without wings, fly or backstage tricks. Instead, Brown and Stubbs are using their own tricks, including having the organ loft double as Mount Olympus and embedding video along with clarifying English subtitles. There will be a set and modern-day costumes. The whole production will travel to Seattle, where it prefaces the American Handel Festival happening in March. (Stubbs will direct two other Handel operas during the festival: “Acis and Galatea” and “Esther.”)
The orchestra, too, represents some of the best baroque players in the area: violinists Svend Ronning, Tekla Cunningham and Mary Manning, harpsichordist Kathryn Habedank and lutenist/guitarist Elizabeth Brown, plus baroque trumpet, oboes and timpani.
Stubbs likes the chance to work with students: Although the rehearsal pace is slower, it’s “nice to try out new things, and keep my eye on upcoming talent,” he said. And the professional atmosphere is good for the students who “will be able to step out into the professional level and keep their feet,” he added.
As Stubbs finishes his soup and heads back to rehearsal, he offers one more musicological tidbit that shows again what a wealth of knowledge he offers to PLU students. “You know, the funny thing is that right at the end of ‘Semele,’ there’s a chorus in honor of Bacchus, and the (rhythmic motif) is exactly the same as in the Hallelujah chorus (from the ‘Messiah’) – ‘To Bacchus! To Bacchus!’ ” he sings, with a wicked grin. “ ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ This opera’s a great piece, no less great than ‘Messiah.’ It’s just a sexy subject rather than a religious one.”
What: An opera by George Frederic Handel
Who: Pacific Lutheran University opera workshop director Stephen Stubbs and James Brown
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27-29, 3 p.m. Jan. 30 at PLU; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in Seattle
Where: PLU’s Lagerquist Hall, South 124th Street and 10th Avenue South, Tacoma; Trinity Parish Church, 609 Eighth Ave., Seattle
Tickets: $15-$10, $5 for PLU students
Information: 253-535-7602, www.plu.edu/music