Photo: University of Washington.
By Melinda Bargreen
It’s an inspired concept: an apprentice system uniting university opera students with an internationally renowned, locally based company of professionals. The first results of that partnership were on display recently in Meany Theater, where lutenist/harpsichordist Stephen Stubbs and his Pacific MusicWorks presented a visionary, supercharged production of Handel’s tuneful opera “Semele.”
This was one of those rare productions in which almost everything seemed ideally suited: the clear but resonant acoustics in Meany, the stunning visual display of the brilliantly lighted minimalist “set,” the stellar singers, and the adroit period-savvy instrumentalists. The show zipped by at lightning speed, thanks to Stubbs’ urgent conducting (some of it from the harpsichord) and the nimble fingers of the musicians.
Stubbs, who is officially artist in residence at the UW, uses his Pacific MusicWorks (ensemble in residence at the UW) in a way that the University has never tried before. Formerly a showcase for student instrumentalists and student singers, the UW Opera rose to exciting levels a few decades ago, when professors like the great singer Leon Lishner and the inspired designer Robert Dahlstrom achieved remarkable results with student singers and instrumentalists under the direction of internationally noted conductors, including Peter Erōs. Since then, the UW has not devoted the necessary resources and attention to the applied-music programs, and the once-proud opera tradition has almost disappeared.
That’s why the current collaboration with Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks is particularly welcome news for music lovers who also appreciate vivid theater. That was certainly on offer in Handel’s “Semele,” whose visuals (by set/lighting designer Cameron Mock and video designer Adam Larsen) were as impressive as anything you’d see on a major mainstage. What operagoers saw was essentially an empty stage, with backdrops and projections so imaginatively and artfully lighted that the effect was one of opulence rather than emptiness. The projected titles sometimes were displayed in antique script on curtained panels for a little visual variety, a great idea.
Student musicians shared the stands with professional players; it’s hard to imagine a better way of picking up the specific skills of baroque-era performance practice. Students made up the chorus, and student singers took over the leading roles in last of the three performances, after picking up hints and techniques from the all-star professional cast that sang the first two nights.
And what stars they were! It’s hard to decide which was more brilliant: the opulent and expressive mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, in the dual roles of Ino and Juno; the vocal pyrotechnics of stratospheric soprano Haeran Hong in the title role; the sonorous bass of Colin Ramsey, the mellifluous and accomplished countertenor of Nathan Medley, the noble tenor of Aaron Sheehan, or the high-spirited and seductive soprano of Valerie Vizant.
The imaginative, energetic stage director James Darrah sent his company charging back and forth across the stage in a thundering herd a few times too many (occasionally drowning out the music), and the necessity for re-tuning in the orchestra pit was not always heeded. But these are minor quibbles in the face of such a resoundingly good production, and a collaboration that augurs excitingly well for both Pacific MusicWorks and the University.