Claus Guth’s interpretation of Handel’s Semele is characterized by his keen understanding of the protagonist’s desires, the complexities of human nature, and the profound themes embedded within the story. Guth explores the relentless pursuit of personal fulfillment, the delicate balance between longing and self-destruction, and the consequences of unchecked desire. With careful nuance, Guth unveils Semele’s inner turmoil, presenting her as a woman trapped in a stifling world, yearning for transcendence and fulfillment of her desires beyond the limitations of her mortal existence.
“The story of Semele is the story of a woman who feels great discomfort with what surrounds her,” says Guth. “And it is an attempt to leave a world that is strictly regulated in its rituals, in its concepts.”
“And obviously, one cannot simply adjust to this world by resisting it a little; it can only be done with a bang. One can only explode out of it. It is a collective exploration in a place where one has no idea of the significance it may eventually have.” Semele’s journey becomes a vehicle for exploring themes of longing, chaos, and the fragility of the human spirit.
For the sets, Michael Levine designed angular, white, “monstrously cold structures”, which could somehow be a relatively interchangeable place as the events room of any hotel. Semele will tear down a wall revealing what’s behind: a darkness of some kind, something organic and monstrous. To reveal what it is like when our entire world, our environment, like these walls, is nothing more than cardboard, just perfectly designed surfaces. What is behind this? And is this behind something monstrous, black, organically shaped? For the creative team, that’s the perfect material for a nightmare.
Levine’s set design undergoes a remarkable transformation as Semele’s desires intensify and her world fractures, bringing the audience into a physically different space. Walls are torn down as if bombed, as if the space had not only been attacked by Semele but as if a bird had been on the outside, pecking holes into the room, exposing hidden spaces that challenge the audience’s perception of reality.
The invasion of feathers, a symbolic representation of Jupiter’s presence, serves as both a source of wonder and a foreboding element, drawing Semele deeper into the mythological realm. This opens up two possibilities: Jupiter is trying to reach her, and she is trying to reach Jupiter.
There is what Guth defines as “a kind of vomiting of Jupiter’s world into this other world.” The sets visually convey the dichotomy between Semele’s desires and the dark forces that lie behind the surface, inviting contemplation on the consequences of relentless pursuit and the potential for self-destruction.
“Does the pursuit of happiness also carry the risk of destruction?” Guth asks himself. “What is interesting about this story for our time is that it is about this constant striving for more, to be more outside of here, to try to find more. It’s as if someone wants to immerse themselves in another world through drugs or someone who keeps pushing themselves further until they can’t go any further. It is impossible for human beings to keep surpassing themselves. There is only a certain amount one can do before the structure disappears from life. Perhaps true love cannot be found in our world. But we also do not know what awaits us on the other side of the walls.”
Semele is on stage at Bayerische Staatsoper until July 25.
With performers: Brenda Rae, Michael Spyres, Jonas Hacker, Jakub Józef Orliński, Emily D’Angelo, Nadezhda Karyazina, Jessica Niles, Philippe Sly, Milan Siljanov, LauschWerk (Chorus)