Tales of an evil queen
Beethoven expressed it best when he reportedly threw Rossini shade: “Any other other style than opera buffa would do violence to your nature.” History certainly hasn’t been kind to many of Rossini’s serious works, with most languishing besides his ever popular comic masterpieces. But the ones that are produced have received the star treatment, attracting the top echelons of opera world. This 1998 concert recording of Semiramide re-released by Nightingale is no exception.
The score is embellished with enough tiny notes to put Swarovski to shame. Where Barbiere and Cenerentola allow the singers a bit of leeway for comic stage business, Semiramide simply doesn’t let up on the vocal pyrotechnics – it is set in Babylon, after all, that sin city of the ancient world. One can’t really imagine the two leading ladies could do much in terms of staging and still be standing three hours later to sustain trills in harmony. Thankfully, Edita Gruberova and Bernadette Manca di Nissa have the stamina to endure the vocal marathon, and the exceptionally clear sound captures every note.
A basic plot summary reads something like an entire season of Revenge. As with all good stories, this one started fifteen years before the opera begins, with Semiramide taking the throne over from her husband, who had not only died mysteriously, but whose son had also disappeared. By the time the curtain goes up, Babylon is in general disarray. Everything seems to be going wrong, which must mean the gods must be unhappy, and Semiramide is forced to abdicate the throne and name a successor.
A young general name Arsace (a contralto pants role) is in love with Princess Azema. As is Assur (yes, another A-name, this one a bass, so naturally a usurper to the throne), as well as an Indian prince. Alliances are formed, secrets hinted at, everybody wants both Azema and the throne, until finally the murdered King Nino’s ghost appears to Arsace, warning him that a past crime must be atoned for. This brings the first act in at just under two hours.
The second act reveals that Semiramide and Assur were in cahoots for the poisoning of King Nino, but now they just can’t stand each other. Because of the ghost’s words, Arsace prepares to marry Semiramide, but he suddenly finds out that he is in fact her long lost son. Reeling from learning that he is about to marry his mother, he also discovers that she and Assur were responsible for his father’s death. He confronts Semiramide (there is also some Azema drama still going on, but that sideplot has pretty much worked itself out by this point, and the Indian King get her – he is the tenor after all), and feels torn about what to do.
In the end, he decides that Assur must be punished, and his mother will be spared. Meanwhile, Assur, learning that Arsace has discovered his dirty secret, prepares to assassinate him. Semiramide, Arsace, and Assur all end up in Nino’s tomb, where they stumble around because it is very dark and they can’t see anything. Arsace stabs somebody, but it turns out to be Semiramide. He is distraught at having killed his mother and wants to kill himself, but he is dragged out of the tomb and hailed as the new King of Babylon.
If the plot feels like the daytime Baroque version of Hamlet, the music fares much better. True, there is always a sense of being in a stylistic period of transition, with the score firmly rooted in an ornamented tradition while gazing out at the swelling wave of Romanticism. The sunny wit of Rossini’s comedies tends to prevail at the expense of the drama, although there are hints of what the composer would achieve in Guillaume Tell. Many listeners will recognize the warhorse aria “Bel raggio lusinghier,’ but there are also pages that foreshadow the tormented ladies of Donizetti, or the action-hero buddies of Verdi.
Perhaps the strongest moments are when Rossini streamlines his vocal lines, such as the gorgeously simple final trio between Semiramide, Arsace, and Assur. At other moments, he lacks the punch to deliver on the lurid premise; a tender duet for soprano and contralto drifts dangerously near to becoming a double étude in trills, while another particularly dramatic moment is underscored with a ludicrous cymbal crash that even Puccini would have had trouble getting away with.
The program notes make a careful mention that the role of Semiramide has been transposed up a bit to fit in Gruberova’s voice. This was a Colbran role, although Rossini’s muse was far past her prime when she created the role and she would never sing it again afterwards; the role was a notorious vocal-shredder even then, with Josephine Fodo-Mainvielle bowing out after the Paris premiere. Gruberova, happily, gives a performance of the highest caliber, with stunning ease across the registers and fearless athleticism. Her voice runs the full gambit, from piercing dramatic singing, to ravishing pianissimi runs that skip nimbly over the orchestra. This is a woman who can trill, but more importantly, integrate her technique into portraying a character.
Marilyn Horne dominated the role of Arsace (along with the similarly difficult role of Tancredi) for around thirty years on stages from La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera. Manca di Nissa possesses a rather similar timbre to Horne, a dark, flexible contralto that fits the pants role perfectly. Her performance is solid, if sometimes a bit effortful in the more reckless coloratura.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is perhaps the biggest surprise on this set. He has sung many bel canto roles, but the role of Assur is a technical warhorse, requiring just as much as bel canto as the leading ladies. He pulls off the most preposterous runs with bravado.
Juan Diego Florez sings Idreno, the King of the Indians, captured right as he was catapulting to stardom. The recording certainly demonstrates how exciting he can be in live performance. Most of the singing is quite beautiful, with a more colorful tone than he usually produces, although the high notes tend toward the pinched.
Marcello Panni leads the Radio Symphonieorchester Wien in a particularly stylish performance. As the first little figure in the orchestra develops into a rapid crescendo, he lets us know that he will be milking the drama. His tempi are never insanely fast, but he generates excitement by keeping the phrases long, leaving the singers room to sing cleanly. The Wiener Konzertchor is also in superb form, every bit as commendable as the spectacular soloists.
There are some searing live performances available with singers like Sutherland, Caballe, Devia, Horne, and Podles. The advantage of this release over some other favorite divas is the simply the quality of the recording. The applause has been scrubbed out (how I can’t imagine, as it must have been thunderous) and every note is clearly audible with a perfect balance between orchestra and singers. A fantastic introduction to Semiramide, or a welcome supplement to any library.