OperaMetro’s take on Rossini’s Semiramide

No, sadly, OM did not attend a performance of Rossini’s epic Semiramide this season, time being at a premium these days, also scheduling issues in the way. But below are a bit of personal history and some random thoughts about this wonderful opera. I’m sorry I’m missing it up front and personal, especially with the stellar cast it sports, but there is always the HD. Take the opportunity: you never know when they’ll do this one again!

Angela Meade as Semiramide in the Met's current production

Angela Meade as Semiramide in the Met's current production

My relationship with Semiramide (the opera, I mean, not the Queen of Babylon herself) evolved in a manner I’m sort of proud of. Though Rossini’s operas had established themselves in the family household, thanks to the perspicacity of my dear younger sister, the real musician in the family, they were of the buffa style exclusively. Now that I’m thinking about it, the ‘they’ was more likely an ‘it,’ only Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the Callas/Gobbi album on Angel LPs, though maybe she had L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola as well on her shelves upstairs…I don’t remember, I was most likely out of the house by the time they arrived. And out there, a student on my own where a tight budget was the rule, if I were to purchase a recording or lay down the price of a ticket and make the long trek to Lincoln Center from the various distal sites I dwelled at, I always sought heavier, more substantial fare at the Met: Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Otello, Aïda, Forza, Salome, Elektra, Frau, etc.

Consequently, my first Rossini opera in the House was Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the winter of ’82. The good news? The great Marilyn Horne was Rosina, una bella voce for sure! The bad news? As the lights came on after the finale of Act II, my soon-to-be wife confessed that if it had gone on even a minute longer, she would have jumped from the Balcony, adding that, however small the likelihood, if we ever found ourselves ordering tickets for Barbiere again, I better just make sure we get the seats with seatbelts. Fair enough, my love, but you know how hard those seats are to get!

Angela Meade in the title role

Angela Meade in the title role

Fast forward to December 3, 1990: by this time it’s the fifth season I’d been reviewing opera for the local paper. Comes the day when the Met premieres its new production of Semiramide, not heard here since the good old days of Nellie Melba in 1894. My cast is Lella Cuberli, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, Chris Merritt, Youngok Shin, and John Cheek, James Conlon conducting. Hey, not too shabby! The colorful production was by John Copley, sets by John Conklin. June Anderson would take on the title role when the opera was telecast over PBS later that season (this performance is available on DVD, possibly also accessible through Met On Demand); the Copley production has been revived this 2017-2018 season with a star cast.  

I already knew well and liked very much the overture and Semiramide’s aria Bel raggio lusinghier in Act I, Scene II (my first exposure to this was sung by Anna Moffo), but I remember starting my review of the performance by saying that, when all is said and done, I wasn’t much of a fan of the style, sort of “opera pseudo-seria,” as opposed to his livelier comic fare, both shorter and fun. In fact this 1990 performance was my first exposure to the whole blessed thing…and yet, and yet I had to admit that all sections of the music and especially the singing had a very positive impact.

Ildar Abdrazakov as the evil Assur conspires with Semiramide

Ildar Abdrazakov as the evil Assur conspires with Semiramide

I’m proud to say that between then and now I’ve operatically matured, some would say "at last!" I’ve grown to admire Semiramide greatly, first through the major complete recording on Decca (3 CDs with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, conducted by Richard Bonynge) and only recently through greater familiarity with the DVD. But also between then and now I’ve grown into a healthy appreciation and respect for the full four centuries of opera, adding Monteverdi, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Gluck, and heaven knows how many others outside the boundaries of the standard repertory. In context of these, Rossini’s Semiramide certainly holds its own.

In Rossini’s compositional history, Semiramide, premiering in Venice in 1823, is an important work, being both the last of his operas composed in Italy and ultimately the impetus for his departure for Paris. The Italians thought it too ‘German,’ and indeed the horns in the score and the sheer size of Semiramide are conspicuous. But it’s a bigger, more political issue than just the sound. Recall that the Austrians occupied northern Italy at the time, that Austrian composers such as the young Mozart sought commissions in Milan. To "sound German” was not to "sound Italian.” To be fair, even many of the Austrians resisted: Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail had too many notes and, after the demise of Emperor Joseph II, the Empress Maria Luisa allegedly called Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791, as una porcheria tedesca, loosely translated as “German rubbish,” this slander perhaps not so surprising as it seems: Leopold II’s court openly preferred Il matrimonio segreto by Cimarosa to anything Mozart wrote. So whose side was Rossini on?

Elizabeth DeShong is the hero Arbace

Elizabeth DeShong is the hero Arbace

Well, he certainly sided with his mistress Isabella Colbran, the famous fiery coloratura mezzosoprano, for whom he had written many previous starring roles. Now she was his wife; this Semiramide would be her great showcase, a bel canto orgy if ever there was one, the first act lasting two and a half hours, the second an hour and a half.* But sadly la Colbran’s voice had been in decline since ’15, therefore disappointing. The Italians snubbed it and felt let down by her. Rossini sensed it was time to move on and out, the next stop was Paris.

The plot, based on Voltaire's Sémiramis from 1748, is simple: the Queen Semiramide plots with Assur to assassinate her husband the King of Babylon. This is carried out before the drama begins. Assur now seeks her hand in marriage, but the gods are angry. Worse, not completely on board with the plan, Semiramide's eyes stray toward the returning young military hero named Arsace, who turns out to be her son. Arsace unknowingly kills Semiramide in the darkness of the tombs. I gave away the ending. My bad.

Semiramide has many treasures: in Act I, the big duet between Semiramide and Arsace, beginning with her sweet thoughts in anticipation of his arrival (Dolce pensiero di queli' instante), is vocal fire, bel canto at its best, as is Semiramide’s famous scene and aria Bel raggio lusinghier just before the big duet. It truly is a grand opera seria.

But lately there comes a more personal reason for me to embrace Semiramide: my Maria Malibran project, scripted for, one can only hope, the silver screen, will hopefully be completed this summer. Malibran, a great diva if ever there was one, is fascinating creature, psychologically speaking. One can only imagine what she was like vocally and on stage. The script includes her pivotal debut at the ripe age of 20 as Semiramide at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1828. She would later also sing the mezzo role of Arbace. More on this later.

So, enjoy Semiramide! The Met’s stellar cast includes the great Angela Meade** in the title role, Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur, Javier Camareno as Idreno, and Ryan Speedo Green as the High Priest Oroe. Maurizio Benini conducts.

To repeat, this is not a review, rather a ramble. For the record, our favorite Rossini operas in the family are Cenerentola, Le Comte Ory, and Guillaume Tell

Photos: Ken Howard.

*Lest your dear heart skips another beat after reading the times listed for the first performances, please note that it was subsequently cut; the running times of Decca’s complete recording are Act I = 95 minutes, Act II = 74 minutes. It's similar in length to Bellini's Norma, which opened the season this year, reviewed here below on this very same page.

**The great Angela Meade was interviewed by OM last summer as part of a preview of her upcoming Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata at Caramoor under the baton of Will Crutchfield. This can be found on the OperaMetro website lower down on the page Regional Seventeen Eighteen.

See, personal growth is possible, even later in life. Enjoy Semiramide!

Next stop: Elektra!! Ciao, J.