Stephen Lawless's staging "drap[es] Ovid's gods and goddesses loosely over the supposed affair between Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy," as Bernard Holland describes it in The New York Times. Writing in New York magazine, Peter G. Davis said, "I suppose this specific directorial conceit was bound to be applied to Semele sooner or later. It's harmless enough and works after a fashion ..." Holland was more approving, however, however, writing that "I like this production's refusal to decide whether it is tragedy or comedy, and its generosity in giving us both."
Of Elizabeth Futral's performance in the title role, James Jorden (founder and producer of the opera fan website Parterre Box) wrote, "Futral is gorgeous enough to tempt the king of the gods, feminine and curvaceous, and she has the personality and wit to put over her director's concept of Semele as a superstar sex kitten."
Davis thought that "the singers perform everything asked of them with good nature, and musical standards are high under conductor Antony Walker's alert baton. Elizabeth Futral (Semele) and Vivica Genaux (Juno) are formidable rivals. Each is a specialist in spinning out Handelian cantilena to maximum effect, whether caressing a long-lined lyrical phrase or launching a cascade of virtuoso vocal fireworks."
Holland praised the "lovely tenor" of Robert Breault as Jupiter, while Jorden praised Matthew White's "virile countertenor" in the all-too-small role of Athamas (Semele's original suitor) and the "wonderfully expressive" Sanford Sylvan, who "made every word vivid" as King Cadmus and as Somnus, the god of sleep.
Bradley Bambarger of New Jersey's Star Ledger was enthusiastic about the dancing: "A highlight of the production ... is Lynne Hockney's witty choreography. She has Futral and others repeatedly break into a slo-mo shimmy that makes Handel's florid sighs seem almost as sexy as R&B. The staging can be diverting visually, too, as when Semele is being fitted for a dress, the lime-colored cloth winding across the room like film on a spool."
He adds, "Doesn't a three-hour 18th-century secular oratorio sound like fun? No? Well, in its guise at New York City Opera, Handel's Semele is such fun that those three hours do what they often don't in Baroque epics: They fly by."