To La Monnaie this evening to see a ‘controversial’ production of Handel’s Semele, directed by Shanghai artist Zhang Huan. The undoubted star of the show is a 450 year-old Chinese wooden ancestral temple, bought by the artist from the widow of an executed man in Quzhou, and reconstructed, piece by piece, in the theatre. The production is preceded by a short film of eyewitness accounts from Quzhou, as the temple was dismantled and carried away. This film is touching (the widow sold it, reluctantly, so that she could buy her son a flat) and an almost complete distraction – the first of many in the production, as it transpired. A positive first: the ‘Les Talens Lyriques’ orchestra, under the baton of Christophe Rousset, was excellent and did Handel justice. Alas, some of the voices simply did not carry. And then there were those distractions. Perhaps the biggest was the east meets west aspect of the production, with Semele and June being Asian, if not Chinese, in origin and the characters all dressed in splendid Chinese costumes. In the programme notes Zhang Huan writes about the ‘transmigration’ of east and west, but if we were supposed to be being told something profound this particular punter didn’t get it. We also get one huge mirror, one pair of naked breasts, one pair of sumo wrestlers (Sumo? Isn’t that Japanese, Zhang?), some flying singers, one gigantic fake horse penis, one group of Mongolian singers and musicians, a paper dragon (but no firecrackers) and a gratuitous sex scene performed stoically and not very convincingly by various members of the chorus (one of them with dubious taste in the underwear department). Mmm…. Worse, the poor widow who had to sell the temple turns up as a humble member of the cast, sweeping the stage. What all of this gimmickry smacks of to me is lack of confidence and, indeed, Huan admits as much in the programme notes: ‘In all honesty, I don’t understand opera, but I like to do things out of the ordinary.’ It’s a shame that he didn’t let his set do the talking. Less distractions, more subtle lighting, more suggestion and less graphic depiction, would all have made this a more attractive (as opposed to distractive) production.