#49 Semele

We enter and interrupt the peace like a rowdy bunch of Bacchus’ Maenads. Rose colored canaries bookend the winery’s testing vines and totter in the wind. The sky is filled with shooting stars. It is another after-party at the Chaddsford Winery in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The party has ended but here we are somewhere between the testing vines still awake with the dawn. Like a groggy Somnus I reach up, pick two grapes off the vine, lay back down, and hand one to Anna as we look upward. The sky has just turned the lightest blue. The Perseid meteorites, white the night before against a black sky are still descending, but now against a dawning blue they glide in strands of gold.

Tonights opera Semele is about the origin story of the mythical god Bacchus which has me thinking heavily of the dreamy time when I worked at a winery.

All the things that you might imagine happening at a winery do. Men run naked past bonfires while women reemerge from grape presses dripping like Phidias’ sculptures. People smoke pot and mingle behind the bushes. Headlights try to find home and cast shadows of Scottish Terriers on the walls and in the gravel. There is a magical realism to winery summers that if anything are not colored through the lens of memory, but dimmed. It is the “reckless delight Bacchus has brought to earth.” We revel in it and nurse relationships and hangovers in equal measure.

The man who hires us leads every gesture with a boyishly handsome smile. It is a warm smile too. Dark hair and glasses. He is an artist with conversation who genuinely dreams and hopes with friends and family, but has enough twinkle in his eye to warm a mid-winter Chester County with a little gossip. He is our Fezziwig! He knows his way around a kitchen and of course can select the right wine for the right meal. I recall spending a pleasant afternoon with him and some Sauvignon Blanc while we brushed olive oil on baguettes and cut basil while red peppers in brown bags grilled beside Sea Bass. Me and Mike babysat his dogs once in a honey colored chateau and I saw the biggest moon I ever saw in my life while Amish teenagers carriaged by listening to rock and roll from a dangling small white radio. He honors his ancestors with a kilt on special occasions and has a biting encyclopedic knowledge of the Royals. We love Joe and we work our asses off for him. He see’s a potential in us we don’t see in ourselves and for him we sell wine by the truckloads.

The winery is owned by the Miller family who are also a blend of 90% heart. Even when Eric walks in to find me dangling on the second tier of his aging French barrels balancing on one leg with my head tilted back and the glass ‘wine thief’ pouring an unfinished vintage into my mouth, he looks the other way. Despite our blue collar, grape-drenched recklessness, Joe and the Millers put us all through classes to master the 5 s’ of appreciating wine. To see, swirl, smell, sip, and savor. We learn to differentiate varieties and vintages and most importantly to pair with foods. We obnoxiously describe wines like rubber tire cherry with hints of cloven peach.

These are some of my first baby steps for appreciating nuance and subtlety in things, the fine hairs that will make culture and opera a life-long fascination. I might even owe my career as an educator to the winery finding joy of given tours and tastings and helping someone love the things I love.

In Chadds Ford, sunflowers grow as tall as Allen Ginsberg. My girlfriend works at the Brandywine River Museum (Wyeth Museum) just down the road and we dance like skeletons at the Halloween party while a lean Andrew struts on by like a character of his own painting wearing all black. The winery and museum bring out all types and with her I learn to accept others for who they are without judgement.

At the winery I copy Joe’s mannerisms, give tours and tastings for visitors, and end up managing the whole darn place on weekends. Just leave the mice in charge of the cheese shop why don’t ya. Time moves on and things change, but one of my favorite anecdotes is after Joe leaves and a new regional manager takes over. She spots Sid drinking a glass of wine while working an evening party. She scolds him for doing so while still on the clock. Sid, not one to be rattled, points and looks over at me, and says, “he trained me.”

Enjoy the wine you’re selling that’s how you build trust in a product,’ I say!Enjoy what you can while you can,’ Bacchus might say.

Semele is an origin story of sorts that climaxes with the birth of Bacchus. Ever since being hired by Joe to work for this charmed winery in Pennsylvania, I have been a respectful fan of Bacchus.

I finish off a glass of red-plum colored Shiraz that smells of strawberry licorice and head into the intimate Perlman theater inside the Kimmel Center. I haven’t been here since Rié gifted me tickets to see the chamber orchestra so many years ago. Work ended today with an additional 90 minute meeting so I’m really looking forward to getting lost in good story. I don’t know much Handel other than his Messiah.

On the second tier I sit beside a friendly fellow named Dave who in his words is “A huge Handel fan.” After tonight, so am I.

The chorus are layering clouds of angels singing down to mortals. The orchestra strikes harmony and counterpoint like gilded winds through the clouds. The leads have chemistry and sound strong while their doppelgänger shadows mirror their movements, visually supporting the recitative. Jupiter’s thunderbolts pierce the clouds like meteorites and Bacchus emerges naked from the ash.

See, smell, swirl, sip, and savor. This is easily Philly’s most complex opera of the season with a satisfying and lingering smoky finish.

So what is Semele all about? It begins with the title character postponing her marriage because she has fallen in love with Jupiter who interrupts everything and carries her away. Jupiters wife Juno is jealous and finds his palace guarded by dragons where Semele is and she has her friend iris gather info. (the two of them are hilarious and have a great chemistry with words and body language that reveals they like each other but Juno is the top mean girl) The two of them wake somnus the god of sleep (who is a giant character who enters rolling on top of a bunch of sleepers all tangled up with big snores). Ino shares love for athamus who was semele’s betrothed (athamus had an amazing voice with feminine tonality) Jupiter who lives in the moment professes his fidelity and love for Semele who he is now sensing is ambitious for pleasure, immortality and love so he brings her sister to keep her company amid a garden full of distractions. Juno has bribed somnus with his favorite nymph and she uses that power to trick her sister into believing Semele is as beautiful as a goddess and Semele see’s her reflection and believes it. She is so full of herself that she agrees to deny Jupiter unless he gifts her immortality. Feeling she has changed from the woman he fell in love with he tries to win her back but realizes she must die being burned by his lightning. There is an amazing chorus here on the ephemerality of existence. Ino returns to earth and reports what happened. Jupiter and Juno return and let everyone know that Semele’s unborn child will rise from the ashes and it is bachus who will “bring a reckless delight to all the earth…” Here the dancer (Lindsey Matheis) from earlier is naked with a reddish shower falling on her as she rises from the ashes reminded of the winery parties from years ago.

Notes on the production


Composer………………………….. George Frideric Handel

Semele…………………………….….. Amanda Forsythe

Juno………………………………….….. Daniela Mack

Jupiter …………………………..…….. Alek Shrader

Athamas……………………..….…… Tim Mead

Cadmus/Somnus……….……..… Alex Rosen

Iris…………………………………………. Sarah Shafer

Conductor……………………………. Gary Thor Wedow

Principal dancer…………………… Lindsey Matheis

Philadelphia Opera