Steamy and sensual ‘Semele’ is a comic sex romp at Wolf Trap

If you’re an opera novice or even an opera hater, this production is well worth your time.

If you think you hate opera, think again — Wolf Trap’s Semele is a sexy and hilarious piece of music-theater that will change your mind.

The 1744 work composed by George Frideric Handel follows Semele (Esther Tonea), princess of Thebes betrothed against her will to handsome prince Athamus (Kathleen Felty), whom her sister Ino (Emily Treigle) not-so-secretly loves. As the audience waits for the show to begin, there’s suddenly a commotion in the audience — chorus members clad in muted jewel tones begin walking up the aisles. The performers are already in character, greeting audience members as if we are all wedding guests at the ceremony for Semele and Athamus. The audience, effectively, becomes a part of the story because of Tara Faircloth’s direction — we have been cast as a chorus awaiting the bride and groom, and we, like the chorus itself, will reap the rewards or repercussions of what happens next.

Lunga Eric Hallam as Jupiter and Esther Tonea as Semele in ‘Semele.’ Photo by Ken Howard.

Semele drags her heels to the altar, encouraged by a scene-stealing flower girl with impeccable comedic timing (Cora McCormick). The audience feels the anxiety of Athamus and the chorus as we stumble toward the altar, which in the libretto is a temple dedicated to Juno. In this version, the temple appears to be a Protestant church judging from the WASPy costumes and barren stone walls. This stands in contrast to the lush, rosy land of the gods revealed later in Act Two.

Tonea’s Semele sings to the rafters, begging for Jupiter — the god she loves above Athamus — to save her. He sends some lightning bolts to disrupt the ceremony, and the group disperses in fear, except for a distraught Athamus and lovesick Ino. In their following arias and duets, Treigle and Felty have electric chemistry — Felty plays the clueless himbo well, as Treigle plays into the earnest despair of Ino’s unrequited love. Their tender chemistry grounds the play in some version of real life — while Semele’s divine interactions with Jupiter are otherworldly and extravagant, the story of Ino and Athamus serves to remind the audience that love is not restricted to the world of the gods, and perhaps may be truer in the realm of man.

Semele, meanwhile, finds herself experiencing “endless pleasure, endless love” with the god Jupiter (Lunga Eric Hallam), causing ire in his wife, Juno (also Emily Treigle). Iris (Véronique Filloux), dressed as a rainbow-clad leprechaun, tells Juno of Jupiter’s betrayal, setting the stage for Juno to devise a plan for her revenge. Together, Treigle and Filloux nail the playful, slapstick dynamic of a Disney villain and her silly henchman.

Véronique Filloux as Iris in ‘Semele.’ Photo by Ken Howard.

As the stage transforms, the chorus returns now dressed like ethereal extras from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Semele arrives onstage lounging in a chaise, displaying Tonea’s excellent breath control in the aria “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” She laments having to sleep after her vigorous lovemaking sessions with Jupiter, who is a tenor in jeans. His outfit is in stark contrast to the sumptuous costumes by Rooth Varland, perhaps suggesting that while the mortal Semele gave up her life to be with a god, he is still just some guy with not much to offer her.

Hallam and Tonea share steamy duets that capture the sensuality of this opera, both in the music itself and in the intimacy direction by Emily Sucher. Despite their chemistry, it’s hard to root for this pairing — this god clearly has the upper hand, and Semele begins to struggle with her own mortality. Her ambition bubbles to the surface, and must face the power imbalance between her and Jupiter. Is it worth it to compromise one’s own power for sexual satisfaction? Can divine sex satisfy if the partnership is not one of equals? These are the questions Semele posed in 1744, and they ring just as true in this production 279 years later.

Esther Tonea as Semele and chorus in ‘Semele.’ Photo by Ken Howard.

Without giving too much away, the opera ends with the birth of Bacchus, and the triumphant final chorus declares what joy his birth brings: “Happy, happy shall we be / free from care, from sorrow free! Guiltless pleasures we’ll enjoy, Virtuous love will never cloy.” While Semele faces consequences for her affair with Jupiter, the chorus and humanity itself now have the chance to find guiltless pleasure because of her sacrifice.

If you’re an opera novice or even an opera hater, this production is well worth your time. The music, conducted by Timothy Long, is undoubtedly gorgeous, but it is the performances that make this story so enjoyable, particularly those of Tonea and Treigle. Tonea’s voice is pitch-perfect while Treigle’s acting range is as impressive as her vocal one. As Ino, Treigle is a sweet, awkward schoolgirl, but her turn as Juno is a bewitching and impassioned tempest come alive. Her distinct performances as Ino and Juno paired with Tonea’s Semele offer a powerful look at the different ways women have long battled the demands of sex, love, power, and self.

And to do all this in a two-hour comic sex romp? I could not imagine a better way to spend an evening than at Wolf Trap’s Semele.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.

Semele plays Thursday, June 29, 2023, at 2 pm, and Saturday, July 1 at 7:30 pm presented by Wolf Trap Opera performing at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, VA . Tickets can be purchased online.

Performed in English with projected text.

The full Wolf Trap Opera program can be found here.


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