Baroque Cabaret: Love Triangles, Deceitful Women, and Phoenix Ashes in Handel’s Semele

Companie Baroque Mont Royal

Tenor David H. Menzies talked to Marisa Samek about La Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal’s weekend performance of Handel’s Semele.

Marisa Samek (MS): Tell me about La Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal

David H. Menzies (DM): I started La Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal with harpsichord player, Susan Toman three years ago. We were both working on our doctorates in Baroque and Early Music at McGill during the same time and having so much fun putting on recitals together that we just said, “Let’s do an opera, why not?” It spiraled into a much bigger thing than we had originally planned and, just like that, we formed a company. We work with signers, instrumentalists, and directors on a rotating basis. It’s a good formula because we can find people with the right strengths for whatever show we’re doing. We raise money for our shows by performing “salon concerts” in people’s living rooms just like they would’ve done in the 1700s.

MS: What is Baroque Music?

DM:The Baroque period in music took place roughly between 1600 and 1750. The word Baroque comes from the Portuguese word meaning “misshapen pearl” and, similar to what is happening with art and architecture around the same time, Baroque music is very ornate, showy, and elaborate. In the music you’ll notice a lot of fast-moving passages, an emphasis on virtuosity and ornamentation. Bach, Vivaldi is and of course, Handel, are classic examples of Baroque composers.

MS:What drew you to Baroque Opera?

DM:As a singer, I was really attracted by the Baroque period because it is the period that gave birth to opera as we know it today. It started with a group of Italian artist and intellectuals called the Camerata who loved Greek mythology. They recreated Greek-style drama but enhanced it by bringing together all the arts forms: music, song, dance, costume, and set. They sought to recreate a mythological world and created opera; this bigger all-encompassing art form.

MS:Let’s talk about Semele. What’s the storyline?

DM:Semele is an interpretation of a vignette from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The main plot centers on the love triangle between Semele, the god of all the gods Jupiter, and Jupiter’s wife, goddess of the gods Juno. Juno’s furious because Jupiter is always philandering about. In this story, he turns into an eagle and whisks Semele away. This immortal love triangle is paralleled by the mortal love triangle between Semele, Semele’s betrothed prince from another kingdom, and Semele’s younger sister Eno.
The story follows Juno’s plan to extract her revenge on Semele. Preying on Semele’s ambition, Juno tempts her to ask Jupiter to show Semele his true, immortal state rather than his human form. Tired of not fitting in with the other deities, Semele asks, “I want to see you as Jupiter, the God.” Jupiter sings the aria “Take heed what you press, I shall harm you” but she insists and he reveals his true self; an overwhelming sight that burns Semele into flame. But it ends happily, because in 1744 they believed in happy endings.

MS:How is CBM’s performance unique?

DM:Our show is one of the many classical music happenings in the city besides the Opera de Montreal and the MSO. It’s affordable and the performers are so good, so invested, and so passionate about their work. For the opera, we’ve taken a much more naturalistic approach; not as stylized as a Baroque opera would be. It could be done as a full-scale opera with a fifty-member orchestra but we are doing a chamber version. We have seven instruments, six main soloists, and an eight-person chorus. Our show is also ninety minutes instead of three hours. It’s very manageable, especially if you’re not a regular opera goer. And, we sell wine which you can have while you’re watching a show—like a Cabaret. You could bring a group of friends, have a few drinks, come to our 7:30 show and then go out for dinner; relax, sit back, and let us entertain you.

David’s fun tidbits about the show

  • The same singer plays Juno and Ino because these characters are each one’s alter ego. Ino is sweet and loving while Juno is wrathful and furious.
  • One of the main characters, Jupiter, doesn’t appear until the second act because the singer who originally performed the part couldn’t make it to the early rehearsals due to his engagement in another opera.
  • It was written around the time Handel switched his focus from operas to oratorios and Semele reflects that transition; it has a Christian moral but the story matter is secular.

Handel’s Semele plays at Victoria Hall (4626 Sherbrooke) on April 5 at 7:30 p.m. and April 6th at 2:30 p.m. $25/20.