By George Frideric Handel
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by William Lacey
Directed by John Copley

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Almost any time that Ruth Ann Swenson sings with the San Francisco Opera, audiences can be sure of a thrilling performance. The American soprano delivers thrills of the highest order in the company's first-ever production of Handel's Semele, with its libretto by William Congreve after Ovid's ``Metamorphoses.'' Swenson is captivating as a beautiful mortal who has a passionate affair with Jupiter, king of the gods, and loses her life when she aspires to immortality.

Swenson's artful ornamentation, crystalline high notes and amazing breath control reflect both talent and technique. She also acts well, but perhaps her defining characteristics are how easy she makes it all seem and how much joy she seems to derive from singing. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the SFO is her home company, for she began her professional career with its Merola Opera training program in the '80s. Even then it was clear that she was a singer with special gifts. Over the years, she has carefully nurtured those gifts and has deepened and matured artistically and vocally.

Swenson's performance alone would make this production worthwhile, but other singers also excel. Chief among them is English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Making her SFO debut, she has a dual challenge: portraying both Ino, Semele's loyal sister, and Juno, Jupiter's vengeful queen. Her acting is delightful, her singing formidable. She also blends beautifully in duet with American countertenor Brian Asawa as Athamas, Semele's hapless fiance, whom Ino loves. American soprano Christine Brandes is a sprightly Iris, Juno's attendant messenger.

English tenor John Mark Ainsley is a bit stiff as Jupiter, but his singing is satisfactory. Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea is a sonorous, dignified Cadmus, king of Thebes and father of Semele. He then shows his comic skills as Somnus, god of sleep, whom Juno enlists in her plot to get rid of Semele. American bass John Ames as the high priest of Juno and American tenor Todd Geer in a brief appearance as Apollo show great promise. Both are second-year Adler Fellows as part of the Merola Opera program.

Conductor William Lacey, who shares the podium with Sir Charles Mackerras, marshals the orchestral and choral forces well, providing sensitive accompaniment. Ian Robertson's chorus is at its glorious best.

Director John Copley adds numerous witty touches to the staging. He places the action in the 18th century with the aid of Henry Bardon's sets and David Walker's costumes, handsomely lighted by Thomas J. Munn. In addition to all the strengths of the production itself, admirers of Handel's music will find much to savor in his melodic arias, ensembles and choruses.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:56 PST