Cher Public

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.

  • Thank you for this informative and entertaining review (by the sounds of it, Revenge has nothing on this story!). Too bad about all the applause being scrubbed out.

  • javier

    I have this recording but have not heard it in over a year. I have a hard time thinking of Semiramide as evil because her music is so beautiful…I want to view her as a victim of her own ambition. I’m not sure what lead her to kill her husband aside from the desire to reign by herself.

    Anyway, I didn’t learn to appreciate the final scene until recently as I was listening to surherland’s studio recording. The aria “al moo pregar” has the most beautiful trills when sing by Sutherland. Gruberova sounds good too but I don’t remember it that well.

  • rysanekfreak

    When about to listen to a Semiramide recording, I would like to know if the performance is slightly cut or heavily cut. Does anyone know about this one?

    • Archaeopteryx

      Hi rysanekfreak, this performance is medium-cut, I’d say. Most of Gruberova’s appearances are complete, but most of the cabaletta and chorus repeats of the other protagonists -- even Flórez! -- are cut, which I find very frustrating. Then we have some cuts in recitative (some really important passages disappearing because of this) and the omitting of a whole chorus number in the Finale II. Call me a fetishist, but I cannot bear this one because of these cuts. The only complete recording is the live recording on Warner Fonit Cetra with Iano Tamar and the chest-voice-monster Gloria Scalchi.

      • Archaeopteryx

        By the way, thank you very much, Adriel, for this delightful introduction to one of my favourite operas. I owne this recording in the old edition (in green) with libretto, and liked it very much in the beginning (before I witnessed a complete performance of the opera under M° Zedda), but now I think Gruberova is not the best in this role, which is more of a mezzo-soprano than a coloratura (as all these Colbran-roles, she started as a contralto and practiced well every day, but never really got into the soprano range really without effort, which eventually damaged her voice very early), and I would like Sonia Ganassi or Joyce DiDonato to sing it!!

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        ‘Chest-voice-monster Gloria Scalchi’ -- sounds good to me! Will I be pleased if I check her out?

        • luvtennis

          Tamar is very inconsistent, Cocky. But i have a soft spot for that recording, which I unfortunately misplaced.

          • Camille

            Oooooh! I luv ‘chest-voice-monster’, too!
            Maybe Santa will bring me one for Christmas if i am not naughty but nice.

        • Archaeopteryx

          Oh I hope so… have a look at this:

  • Quanto Painy Fakor
    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      • papopera

        SO, WTF ??

      • oedipe

        So, if I am getting it right, the answer is: UNcut in the beginning, clearly; but unceremoniously squeezed out towards the end.

        • manou

          Somebody give oedipe an Amazon gift voucher.

        • rysanekfreak

          Oh, mercy me! I hope no one holds me responsible for introducing the idea of cut versus uncut penises into this thread!!! I merely wanted to know if the performance (not the tenor or basso) was cut or uncut.

          I don’t know whether to stagger toward my fainting couch or shout for the footman to bring me my gout stool.

          • manou

            So that’s why he is called a footman!

  • Will

    “Ninny’s Tomb!”

  • Camille

    Is there not a recording of Junie Anderson as well? Of course there was the Met broadcast, but one would think….?

    • J. G. Pastorkyna

      No official recording with Anderson. Instead, one was made with Studer, Larmore and Ramey. Not a disgrace, but a rather synthetic affair.

      • danpatter

        Actually, what sunk that recording (though I still listen to it and like things about it) is Ion Marin’s graceless, hard-driven conducting. His appearance on several important studio recordings always made me wonder whose boy toy he might be. But I have a nasty mind.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Larmore is pretty great on it, but yeah, it’s an easy one to resist, and always just sticks out as one of that weird bunch that kept coming along all at once with Studer in EVERYTHING.

          • danpatter

            I remain very fond of some of Studer’s studio work -- she had a lovely voice, and that counts for a lot with me. But some things did not work at all. Her last recordings are an interesting contrast: an often thrilling and gorgeously sung Senta and a completely perplexing Gilda -- more than a misfire, certainly.

          • operalover9001

            Interestingly, I just bought a copy of Studer’s Merry Widow, and yes, her voice is lovely. But my god, she is SO mannered in that breathy, swoopy, “expressive” way. It’s funny, because I always imagined her as a somewhat bland singer who doesn’t do much with the music. Rather terrified of Flemings upcoming Hanna, although her concert performance wasn’t bad.

          • I think Studer’s problem was that she sang everything. I remember hearing a rendition of Isolde’s Liebestod on the radio and thinking: “Seriously?”. Having said that, her best work was in German rep.

          • MontyNostry

            I heard Studer quite frequently in her brief prime and she could be very exciting in the theatre (particularly an Elettra in Salzburg and a Kaiserin in Munich -- the EMI Kaiserin was her best recording, I think), but in most of her recordings there are moments when the voice just loses colour and sags. I heard her Vilja a while ago and was shocked by the way the tone tended to disappear rather than float — and it was much praised at the time.

          • messa di voce

            John Eliot Gardiner conducts Studer in Merry Widow: worst recording idea ever.

          • Her Kaiserin is good on the Solti DVD (with Marton as the Faiberin).

          • Camille

            Loved the sound of her Elisabeth/Tannhäuser mit caro Maestro Sinopoli.

            Saw her last performances at Met as die Feldmarschallin. Problematic, and she looked sad. I was sorry for her.

          • Clita del Toro

            Years ago I bought a Studer operatic recital CD. What puzzled me was that she sounded like a different singer on every track. Maybe it’s just me?

        • Gualtier M

          You are not alone in that suspicion about Ion Marin, Dan Patter. I managed to find an archived copy of Stephan Von Cron’s Sutherland-Bonynge exposé.

          Here is what Christine Weidinger had to say about Mo. Marin:

          “Later in the day I spoke with Christine about some of her recent colleagues. She not surprisingly had no kind words for the conductor of her Met debut, so incompetent that Marilyn Horne walked out of the production. Not only was it the worst conducting I had ever heard at the Met (other than Sarah Caldwell), but I couldn’t understand how the young Rumanian, Ion Marin, had managed to get a contract with DGG (his subsequent discs for them with Cheryl Studer, „Lucia“ and „Semiramide“, were equally disastrous). Christine explained to me that his wedding band never kept him out of any bed of use, and being good- looking he shot high, managing to successfully seduce a powerful male producer at the prestigious German company. Ever since his star had soared in the heavens, despite his obvious lack of talent.”

          German producer? Perhaps at Deutsche Grammophon?

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

            At that time, Studer was backed by a LOT of private money. Ms Weidinger knows what she is talking about with regard to Marin. Lots of lip service with little to back it up.

          • oedipe

            German producer? Anyone we should know about?

          • MontyNostry

            Is that figurative or literal lip service, QPF?

          • MontyNostry

            … or it could have been the Norwegian head of A&R at DG at the time. He was reputedly generous with his favours.

          • manou

            A Norwegian blue? Pining for the fjords?

          • MontyNostry

            More like Norwegian black and blue (with a little recreational asphyxiation), according to stories he used to tell all and sundry.

          • manou

            Well one must find some recreation during those dreary polar nights.

          • Camille

            O Gualtiero!!!! Where did you find or how did you find that article about the Bonynges—the wayback machine? I was looking for it in the last year, and--no trace.

            Wondering how much of it is true--years ago I thought it a hatchet job--now I don’t know what to think but some of it has some ring of veracity. Whatever became of this fellow?

          • danpatter

            Thanks, Gualtier M, this article confirmed my evil suspicions, always a satisfying experience!

          • Gualtier M

            I have the DG “Semiramide” CD at home. The executive producer listed in the booklet is one Pal Christian Moe -- as in big ole mo’.

    • grimoaldo

      I live in hope that there is a “pirate” somewhere that someday will surface of the first time I ever saw “Junie”:

      High priest of the Magi Gwynne Howell
      an Indian prince Chris Merritt
      a prince of the blood royal Samuel Ramey
      Queen of Babylon June Anderson
      Commander of the army Marilyn Horne
      a princess of the blood royal Judith Howarth
      Captain of the Royal Guard John Dobson
      Ghost of Nino Matthew Best
      Conductor Henry Lewis
      9 April 1986

      It was a concert, not a staged performance, started at 6:30 and finished as I recall well after 11, partly due to the prolonged ovations and audience going nuts after virtually every number.

      A youtube clip from the concert Anderson did with Alfredo Kraus, who was her partner in many performances at that time, the following year in Paris, of “Bel raggio lusinghier” :

      This review says:
      “If the plot feels like the daytime Baroque version of Hamlet, the music fares much better.”
      The libretto is based on Semiramis, one of the many plays of Voltaire.
      He took elements of the historical Assyrian Queen --
      ” there was a historical Assyrian queen Shammuramat (Semiramis), wife of Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria. After her husband’s death, she served as regent from 810 -- 806 BC for her son, Adad-nirari III.”
      about whom many legends and myths sprung up. Voltaire added to these, yes, elements of “Hamlet”, “Oedipus Rex” and the Oresteia. Meyerbeer composed an opera ” Semiramide riconosciuta” and there are operas titled “Semiramide” by Cimarosa and Myslive?ek.
      I love the plot of this opera, I think it is wondrous, fantastic. One of the reasons why I love opera (or used to anyway) is because the opera stage is the only place where Baroque/ Romantic dramas of Voltaire, Byron, Victor Hugo, so many others are still performed. Very much in a tiny minority here, I know, one of the very few people in the world who actually goes to see Il Trovatore at least partly because he genuinely loves the story.

      • Camille

        Wonderfully lovely Junie.

        High E dashed off as lightly and easily as if it were a middle C. The night I heard that transmission of Semiramide from the Met, in 1991, it sounded as though the age of great singing was still with us, here below.

        Junie is her name in Italian, and pronounced “YU-nee”, at least by the hapless Italian love-slaves and rabid fans of hers I knew, back in the day.

        Don’t give up, Junie!! Maybe the Manon didn’t work out but there has got to be something else you’ve got up your sleeve. You can’t let down grimoaldp!

        • Nerva Nelli

          “Don’t give up, Junie!! Maybe the Manon didn’t work out but there has got to be something else you’ve got up your sleeve.”

          1. Hilde Mack is ELEGY FOR YOUNG LOVERS

          2. Lead in Argento’s MISS HAVISHAM’S FIRE

          • Camille

            Nerva!!!! They are re-making MEAN GIRLS and you are up for the lead!

            Now then, did you/are you see(ing) Rudolph Buchbinder? He played Beethoven’s own cadenzas.

            Don’t you be mean to Junie!

      • picchiettati
        • grimoaldo


          Thank you, thank you!

          (faints with rapture)

          • picchiettati

            It’s in very clear sound and very generously tracked (none of this «full act as a single mp3»): for example, Semiramide’s «Dolce pensiero di quell’istante» cabaletta is its own track!!

          • Camille

            You see, grimoaldo—never give up and stiff upper lip wins!

            Now you can lay aside Leyla and the coup de glotte for a spell.
            So happy for you.

          • grimoaldo

            Thank you camille, you are so sweet. Not only is it a great performance to enjoy, it is a precious memento, I was in the audience with the dear dead love of my life, I can hear us cheering. It is hard to say what this means to me, thanks again picchiettati.
            And yes I have been on a Leyla Gencer binge, listened to two different full length versions of Les Martyrs from live performances with her this week, my god what an opera, something else I have to thank this site for as it was one of Windy City Operaman’s birthday tributes, not about Gencer ironically, that caused me to listen to her for the first time.
            So if you see this La C, please accept my thanks for this great site, I know I annoy you sometimes but I really do appreciate parterre!

      • That is some fabulous coloratura singing.

  • Camille

    Nota bene:

    it’s Josephine Fodor-Mainville (with an accent aigu over the first e of her given name). Cannot bear to see a diva’s name misspelled.

    well, it coulda been Fodor-Sedan, come to think of it, so not so bad, really.

    • manou

      Thanks Camille -- now I am permitted to say that there are two problems with the Indian King: he starts off as a Prince and gets crowned one paragraph later, and with a typo to boot : “…and the Indian King get her…”.

      Unless it is “…the Indian King -- get her!”.

      Sorry -- I have editor OCD.

      • Camille

        Pas de quoi, madame manou!

        Without you as our standard bearer, the entire Rabelaisian rabble of parterria would go to rack and ruin! We are all in your debt.

        • picchiettati

          By the bye, Camille, I have some chest-voice monster (mp3s) I think you’d quite enjoy (did someone say Dimitrova?). Let me know if you’re interested!

          • Camille


            Ach, du bist wieder da! You are an angel!

            I listened to Rosmunda Pisaroni above, which I assumed to be Gloria Scalchi ossia il Mostro di voce di petto—and liked it quite well. I would not know an MP3 if it hit me in the head. Where do you get them?

            You are brilliant I still have to finish my Ariadne homework, not to mention that Parsifal!!!!!

            Love —
            camilla degli orazi e i curiazi

        • picchiettati

          Camille dear, e-mail me (using my parterre moniker, followed by @ lavabit dot com) and I’ll send you a Dimitrova gift! I’m told that it’s a hard-to-find one (certainly it took some work for me to find it)—and mp3 format, you know, you can play it on iTunes/iPod…

          • Camille

            I thank you and I shall do so in the following week.

            Further, mille e mille grazie to you for giving that link to sweet grimoaldo, to whom Junie Anderson just means everything beautiful. He had a rough time last season and was on the verge of renunciation. This will give him renewed heart

            Thank you for your grand erudition and I hope you will stick around parterre.
            Admiringly yours

  • manou

    Very sorry to intrude here, but I cannot find the original discussion about The Minotaur, and here is a short clip from the production:

    Apologies (which one is the Intermission feature?)

  • manou
  • Cocky Kurwenal

    This does sound good, and I do want a Semiramide recording, but I still can’t conceive of a day where I’d buy a set with Gruberova as a leading lady. It’s just one of those operas where every single recording has issues, for me. If there were a June Anderson recording out there, I’d be a happy bunny.

    • manou

      Start hopping and munch carrots:

      1990 June Anderson,
      Marilyn Horne,
      Samuel Ramey,
      Stanford Olsen James Conlon,
      Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
      (Audio and video recording of a performance at the MET) CD: Celestial Audio
      Cat: CA 135;
      DVD: ArtHaus Musik
      Cat: 100 222 1992

      • Regina delle fate

        Manou. Haha! I’m also pretty sure that the concert pfs at Covent Gardne with a similar cast -- can’t remember who conducted -- was recorded for broadcast by Radio 3, so there must be a pirate of that somewhere. One day it might even come out in CD, I suppose.

        • CarlottaBorromeo

          Henry Lewis conducted. Madame Anderson was not amused by the showy dress the young Judith Howarth wore as Azema. She re-appeared in something much plainer after the interval…

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            Brilliant. I take it the presence of Henry Lewis confirms it was Horne?

          • CarlottaBorromeo

            Anderson, Horne, Merritt and Ramey in the main roles. it was a loooonnnngggg evening….

          • MontyNostry

            My abiding memory of that performance is also that it was a long evening. Shame on me, considering the trio of stars before me -- by which I, of course, mean Horne, Ramey and Howarth (before she changed her frock).

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            Howarth, Howell and Best, surely?

          • Loge

            I heard it at the Met with Lella Cuberli instead of June. That made it an even longer evening.

          • messa di voce

            The only times I ever heard Cuberli the intonation was always painful. Her career seemed to last a long weekend. What was the story there?

          • Buster

            Lella Cuberli’s voice, to me, has many colours, and is very expressive. She always sounds involved, and was a lovely figure on stage. I heard her only once, as Rossini’s Desdemona, and I thought she was a great artist. I still listen to her Giunia a lot -- those long recitatives are just stunning.

          • Buster

          • MontyNostry

            The recent concert performance of Il viaggio a Reims at Covent Garden made one long for Cuberli’s Madame de Folleville, as heard on the famous DG recording. I only saw Cuberli once, as the Contessa in Salzburg. Other members of the cast included Battle, Furlanetto and Raimondi … and I remember nothing about it!

          • MontyNostry

            Whoops. A quick web search suggests it was Morris, not Raimondi. And Upshaw as Barbarina (which is where she should have stayed as far as I’m concerned). Levine conducting. And I still remember nothing about it …

          • Nerva Nelli

            Cuberli’s Met Semiramide, though not ideal, was far superior to Anderson’s icy performance.

            And Cuberli’s career lasted from the mid 70s until the mid-90s. I heard her as Sifare in MITRIDATE in 1984 in Italy and she was *extraordinary*.

            Try her Bel Canto CD, worth searching for.

          • grimoaldo

            “Cuberli’s Met Semiramide, though not ideal, was far superior to Anderson’s icy performance.”

            We should be so lucky as to have either of them as Semiramide today. Back then there was also Cecilia Gasdia, a wonderful Rossini soprano.

            Who would do it now? The wretched Popsy I suppose,(shudder) who just did Viaggio a Reims in a concert at Covent Garden
            ” queasily sung by a less than radiant Marina Poplavskaya.”

          • I like this Cecilia Gasdia woman! But honestly, when is she going to give one of the other Norns a chance to sing?

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Oh that’ll do -- cheers Manou!

      • luvtennis


        Please note that Junie sings both Es in this performance. She did not do so in the live performance that was broadcast on PBS here in the States so it must have been slotted in from earlier in the run. BTW, her e was always a knockout note.

        Ramey and Horne are marvelous as is Stanford “the human butterball” Olsen -- everything on him is round, kinda like the michelin man.

        I was first introduced to June by a broadcast of Semiramide from Covent Garden. I was in high school and had just discovered opera. I was blown away by her incredible agility and stunning acuti. While the voice was not as perfectly produced as Joan’s, the bottom notes had more presence and the greater clarity and point of her tone enhanced the articulation of all those millions of tiny notes in the role.


  • Truly great review Manrico, many thanks.

  • manou

    Am I completely off my trolley or has the byline above been changed?

  • No, you are correct. La Cieca is blessed with so many wonderful reviewers she sometimes gets them confused. The above review is indeed by manrico.

    • manou

      Phew! Grazie.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    And the bloom is off the rose

    • Gualtier M

      Marin still has good hair. BTW: Ion Marin is one of the conductors that Angela Gheorghiu has tapped to conduct her concert appearances. He conducted the joint concert she and Alagna performed in Prospect Park 4 or 5 years ago. His conducting of various Verdi overtures and operatic intermezzos managed to make the Met orchestra sound incompetent.

  • Tamerlano

    Mari and Ewa showing how to do it.