Can I Ask You a Sexual Favor?

Photo: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of New York City Opera

Most great composers’ sexual preferences are well documented, but George Frideric Handel’s orientation continues to be a subject of speculation. Even if there’s no hard evidence to support a romantic relationship with anyone, gay or straight, one thing is certain: Handel displayed an abiding interest in the feminine mystique when he wrote his operas, creating a galaxy of fascinating heroines that more than rivals those of such enthusiastically committed heterosexual composers as Mozart, Puccini, and Richard Strauss. None is more alluring or libidinous than the titular heroine of his “secular oratorio” Semele (an opera in all but name), now on view in an inventive new production at the City Opera.

In the Greek myth recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Semele tells of how Jupiter disguised himself as a human, seduced Semele on the eve of her marriage to Prince Athamas, and installed the girl in a pleasure palace on Mount Cithaeron, where the two carry on shamelessly. When the news of all this reaches the ear of Juno, the chief god’s wife wreaks a terrible revenge by tricking Semele into demanding that her godly lover appear to her in his true form and grant her immortality. When Jupiter reluctantly obliges, a fiery cloud descends over Semele, who dies consumed in flames as the god Bacchus arises phoenixlike from her ashes. Handel never had a wittier or more theatrical text to work with than this, a libretto by poet William Congreve with additions by no less than Alexander Pope and John Milton. And he gratefully seized every opportunity to create an adorably flighty creature whose music explores every facet and nuance of her sensual nature, volatile capriciousness, and pouting vanity.

It seems more than likely that both Congreve and Handel had specific contemporary targets in mind when this thinly disguised satire was composed: After all, social and political advancement through sexual favors was no less rampant in the early eighteenth century than it is today. Stephen Lawless takes his cue from that and runs with it, even if his City Opera production starts out as though we were about to witness a starchy oratorio performance: singers armed with scores, a chorus lined up in evening dress, a fussy organist seated at his instrument, and a stage dominated by organ pipes. Soon, however, those formal trappings vanish. Semele goes all giggly and dons a Marilyn Monroe wig, Juno is transformed into a prim Jackie O. clone complete with pillbox hat, and Jupiter begins to look suspiciously presidential as he warms to his philandering—there’s even an iconic Marilyn moment when a draft from below naughtily blows her dress up above her waist. I suppose this specific directorial conceit was bound to be applied to Semele sooner or later. It’s harmless enough and works after a fashion, but eventually the gimmick turns tiresome, the sort of jokey contemporizing that Peter Sellars does with infinitely more dramatic point and theatrical flair.

The singers perform everything asked of them with good nature, and musical standards are high under conductor Antony Walker’s alert baton. Elizabeth Futral (Semele) and Vivica Genaux (Juno) are formidable rivals. Each is a specialist in spinning out Handelian cantilena to maximum effect, whether caressing a long-lined lyrical phrase or launching a cascade of virtuoso vocal fireworks. Genaux is especially dazzling in this respect, more than confirmed by her spectacular new Handel recital just released on Virgin Classics. If the men seem a bit pallid in comparison, such is the nature of the piece. Matthew White (Athamas) and Robert Breault (Jupiter) are never less than elegant stylists, while Sanford Sylvan in the triple assignment of a Priest, Cadmus, and Somnus is always a pleasure to hear. Best of all though is Handel’s miraculous score, a nonstop sequence of hit tunes and vivid musical characterizations.

Handel. New York City Opera. Through October 4.

Can I Ask You a Sexual Favor?