Cher Public

Queen of the damned

One from the vault

It’s a strange feeling, going to an opera that loads more people have heard than seen. To have seen Semiramide staged at the Royal Opera House before this season, you’d have to be over 120 years old, and a good many of the audience at tonight’s performance were younger than that. 

In the meantime, London has seen only concert performances—one in 1969 with Joan Sutherland, and three in 1986 with the Joan Sutherland you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite, June Anderson.

My own experience of the work was fairly limited. I have a highlights disc of the DG recording—the one with Cheryl Studer on the cover in what we’ll euphemistically call “culturally problematic” styling—but with its efficiently uninspired music-making, that recording never really had much play. I know “Bel raggio lusinghier” pretty well, of course, and as I shuffled through the Royal Opera House foyer, past that odd display of Cio-Cio-San photos (Destinn, Turner, Schwarzkopf, Collier—you know, all the main ones) I found myself wondering if I was going to be in for a lot of filler and not much killer.

I’m not saying I was expecting a one-hit wonder, just that I thought it might be a similar experience to how I imagine going to see Oberon might be.

Well, more fool me, as many of you will already know, because this is a sweetshop of a score and although Joyce DiDonato fired off “Bel raggio” with pyrotechnic glee, that was only one of the evening’s many highlights. The two big duets between Semiramide and Arsace were particularly stunning, with “Serbami ognor” raising the pulse with its virtuosity and “Giorno d’orrore” stopping the breath with its beauty.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, and it’s not as if “Semiramide—a better opera than this dude expected” is headline news anywhere other than in my ill-informed head. Let’s take it from the start.

The evening began with Antonio Pappano appearing in front of the curtain to say a few words about the early death of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a reminder that every day real people really die and that’s why we need art. I imagine Pappano would have gone on to dedicate the performance to his memory, had the entire run not already been dedicated to Philip Gossett and Antonio Alberto Zedda, who prepared the edition used at this evening’s performance (for the 1990 Met production) and who have both already been claimed by 2017’s eager reaper.

Then, after an impressively swift dash from stage to pit on Pappano’s part, the overture crept into the room. How theatrically stealthy, the beginning of this opera. It’s not long before we’re into melody and grandeur, but those opening murmuring moments subtly hint at the private, internal demons of these very public-facing characters.

When those regular “name your unpopular opinion” threads circulate on social media, I am always tempted to say “I like staged overtures.” I’ve never understood why you’re supposed to hate them. I’d much rather be introduced to the world of the drama than stare at some curtains for five minutes.

That said, David Alden’s production made an excellent case for a tabs-in overture, because the first theatrical coup of many is that the curtains opened to reveal… blackness. Behind the tabs a black gauze, and we instantly get a prefiguring of the crucial role darkness plays in the plot of this opera. Eventually our eyes focus on a single figure—Balint Szabo’s excellent Oroe, who really made a case for this being an opera with five principals, not four—making his tortured way across the stage.

The black cloth flies out to reveal a second front cloth, a gorgeous patterned number based on middle-eastern tilework. This second cloth reappears a couple of times during the evening, and while it’s pretty enough always to be welcome, it’s usually in the service of one of opera’s more tedious pieces of practicality—that moment when the singers suddenly step onto the forestage, a cloth drops behind them, and everyone briefly steps out of the world of the opera because we’re all wondering what the big set change is and how long it’s going to take.

Paul Steinberg’s set is, in the purest sense, spectacular—it looks stunning and uses every kind of whistle and bell imaginable, with huge trucks and massive flying-pieces coming in and out—so it’s a shame that this piece of tired pragmatism should have made an appearance.

The first set configuration that we see is centred on a massive statue of a very human-looking Baal—the religious is very political in the world this production creates. There’s more than a whiff of director Alden’s famous “powerhouse” years at ENO in the 80s: humanity dwarfed by the sheer scale of the iconography it has created.

As the production goes on, this sense of scale is constantly reasserted: huge portraits of the ruling family slide in and out on bare walls, and rooms can recreate themselves around the characters as they sing. This isn’t an opera where sense of place is crucial—at least, not till the very end—so this fluidity of location helps keep the eye engaged rather than proving distracting.

There are a couple of unfortunate resonances, however: the basic set with the huge portraits looks so much like an art gallery that I half expected Anna Netrebko to wander in wearing a tour guide uniform and dream the plot of Il trovatore or whatever the holy hell that was. The huge portrait of the murdered Nino that looms over Assur’s mad scene is in a pose—right arm raised, index finger extended—so reminiscent of an umpire signaling the batsman is out that it’s probably for the best that this production isn’t planned for any more countries where cricket is played.

And when Nino’s ghost appears—an honest-to-goodness rising out of the coffin affair, not just a disembodied voice—his charcoal grey suit, red silk tie and sandy-silver hair make him look like nobody so much as… actually, never mind. Let’s just have one day that isn’t about That Guy.

But those gripes aside, the production looked, in all senses, epic and it was directed with a wonderfully reassuring expertise. It’s such an unexpected surprise, for example, to find a director who really knows what to do with a chorus, rather than dotting them around the stage in clumps and occasionally having them break out to do something distracting.

Every one of Alden’s stage pictures was meticulous and detailed, every idea fully examined and formed. One definition of good theatre is that wherever you look you should see something interesting. This has always been rare in even the finest opera productions, and all too often mistaken for being hyperactive and Zeffirellian and putting fucking jugglers everywhere. But Alden knows when a work needs movement and when it needs stillness, and how to tell a story, and how to fill a stage without either inertia or distraction.

If I wasn’t mad on some of the ideas (the flashbacks were a little muddying, and can we please have a moratorium on “look-at-this-child-with-a-toy-signifying-innocence?”) then that’s just a question of personal taste. In its conception and execution, this was very impressive work indeed.

And oh my god, the singing. I’ve become so accustomed to hearing DiDonato in music that places her voice under stress—all that Tough Mudder baroque coloratura—that I had forgotten how beautiful it can sound in repose. It’s simultaneously light and rich, radiant with purity but infused with a wisp of smoke. This monstrously difficult role seemed to hold no terrors for her at all, with even tone from a citrusy, biting bottom to a radiantly ringing top, and not a note out of place.

Touches of star-quality were everywhere, but always in the service of the drama, never self-indulgent. In addition to the aria and duets mentioned above, she made something particularly magical of “Io manco, io moro” at the close of the first act—despairing, white-toned, otherworldly, sinister.

She’s a fine actor and if there was one element missing from her performance, that’s more to do with the role than it is with the singer. It’s a villain written as a heroine, or rather a heroine whose villainy we’re invited to overlook despite being constantly reminded of it. DiDonato was noble and suffering and decent and tortured, as the music instructed her to be, but I didn’t see a murderess. I would have loved a little touch of, you know, false nails and too much eyeliner.

If you’re tall, and have a darkly opulent coloratura mezzo voice, as Daniela Barcellona does, you’d better get used to being righteously angry in a military uniform, and nobody currently does it better. The voice itself isn’t particularly beautiful—although never unpleasant—but the ease with which she moulds it round the most fiendish music is thrilling.

The same applies to Lawrence Brownlee, last seen in London as Charlie Parker at the Hackney Empire, now making the journey a couple of miles west to remind everyone that he is unsurpassed at the day job. And just as I was thinking that even a tenor of this skill couldn’t make Idreno actually interesting, Alden and Brownlee made his act two showstopper something genuinely chilling: the moment when the self-proclaimed “nice guy’ becomes the abuser. Brownlee mauled and came close to attacking Jacquelyn Stucker’s Azema, all the while singing about love, before throwing her over his shoulder and forcibly carrying her off stage.

We saw in front of us the moment played out in Tinder conversations daily, where a would-be suitor turns from romantic pleading to anger that the woman isn’t loving him like he’s told her to.

Stucker is one to watch, by the way—she has a fine voice and was utterly committed to this production’s fascinating conception of her character. Shaven headed, and dressed in an opulent but immobilizing golden gown, a gilded strait-jacket with insanely long sleeves, she is carried on and off like a rug whenever she appears and shows signs that her status as a prize rather than a person has damaged her mental health—she spins, twitches, flinches. When Idreno claims her, he has his minions strip her of the gold dress and replace it with a wedding gown—but now she is veiled. She has regained her movement but lost her face.

Mirco Palazzi, replacing Michele Pertusi who was himself a replacement for Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, relished every moment of Assur’s villainy. Ian Wallace described a bass as “the one who comforts the soprano” and it must be hugely enjoyable to have the odd night where you get to be as evil as those other guys whose voices are about a third higher.

Palazzi snatched the opportunity. This production has Assur enter in a uniform that is more medals than jacket, waving a stick around, and legit the very first thing he does is kick someone on the floor. The voice, too, is perfect for the role—lithe and flexible rather than merely sonorous. His mad scene was genuinely exciting (and my word, wasn’t Verdi paying close attention?).

There was one moment of unfortunate near-comedy at the beginning: Palazzi has an unconscious tendency to bob his upper body around when singing coloratura—not the full Kermes, but not far off—which, combined with Brownlee’s unconscious tendency to rock onto tiptoes when singing higher notes, made the opening trio… well, let’s just say a little less ominous than it should have been.

But overall we’re talking about music-making, then, of the highest calibre, allied to a production which looks superb, is full of ideas, and executes them with the skill of an experienced master and a bunch of top-drawer singers and actors.

My initial misgivings weren’t, I think, entirely unjustified: with less careful handling from its musicians and its theatremakers Semiramide could easily, like all but a few unsinkable theatrical works, descend into an inert slog.

But tonight I looked at my watch at the interval and was astonished to find that nearly two hours had passed. And when an opera contracts time, you know you’ve had one of the good nights.

Photos: Bill Cooper/ROH

  • John Yohalem

    Yes, it’s a wonderful opera, maybe my favorite Rossini. Anderson, Horne and Ramey used to tear up the town with it. I saw this production when it was streamed from Munich, and enjoyed it very much. You have caught its flavor admirably.

    But I must put in some words about Oberon, a superb score that works well in both concert and stage performance. It is no one-hit wonder. I hope you get to hear it properly done.

    • Camille

      You are absolutely dead-on about the abundantly beauteous Oberon, and I look forward hopefully to the day when Covent Garden wakes UP to not only its potentiality but their own responsibility in owning in restoratiin of this glorious work.

      When will there next be a von Weber anniversary year, e.g.?

      • John Yohalem

        Bicentennial of his death in 2028. If anyone is NOT exhausted by the bicentennial of Schubert’s death in 2026 or Beethoven’s in 2027.

        • Camille

          Oh lordy. Mebbe I won’t live that long so as it not to be a problem.

          No one will care a hoot about poor old Weber anyhoo. The Beethoven celebrations will have had everyone so strung out and exhausted from all the shouting out of “FReUDE!” And “Schönergöttertrunkentöchtern”…that they’d not be able to even think of Weber. Oh well.:..

          • You’re right, Weber is seriously undervalued.

            • Camille

              Have you ever heard of or seen that Berloz adaptation of Freischütz, called Robin des bois? It was once rather popular in Parisian theatres but it would likely be considered dated or corny, or both, these days.

            • CCorwinNYC

              I have a broadcast of that with Jose van Dam as Gaspard (Kaspar). I should look for it and listen to it again. Thanks for the reminder. I believe there’s an aria from it on Joyce El-Koury’s new CD “Echo.”

            • Camille

              Oh, that would be really wonderful, and especially so as I do love Monsieur van Dam a lot. Thank you for thinking of it and you will hopefully find it without too much trouble.

            • In 2011 the Opéra Comique put on Le Freischütz, in French, with recitatives and a ballet. Gardiner in the pit, Orch. Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir. Is that the one you mean?

            • I managed to dig out (i.e. I Googled a bit) the Opéra Comique’s “dossier pédagogique” about Le Freischutz. If I’m reading it correctly, Robin des Bois was a version of Der F. prepared by someone called Castil-Blaze, and was described by Berlioz as “mutilated, watered down, tortured and insulted in a thousand ways.” When the Paris Opera wanted to put on a “proper” version, it needed, to comply with its own standards, recitatives and turned to Berlioz. He said Der F. didn’t actually need them, but that if it was the only way to get Der F. played properly, it would be better he should compose them than someone less familiar with the original.

              https://www.opera-comique.com/sites/TNOC/files/uploads/documents/905-dossierpedagogiquefreischutzok.pdf

            • Camille

              Oh THANKS! Yes, I remembered the inventions of Castil-Blaze (a very important figure) and later Hector’s involvement but it’s all from 30 years ago, so will have to refresh ma mémoire and repair forthwith to your blog. You have done me a big favor and I appreciate it as I have been so downcast since announcement of DH’s death.

              Merci mille fois!

            • Camille

              Oh mais OUI! That is just too wonderful and the fact of these performances and restoration somehow managed to escape me. Further investigation is necessary! Thank you so much!

            • CCorwinNYC

              No it’s a concert performance from the Pleyel 2002 Eschenbach conducting.

        • Lohenfal

          John, you’re right about the 3 bicentennials occurring in that period, but Weber’s will be in 2026 and Schubert’s in 2028. Perhaps it’s better that way, since we won’t be exhausted by the Beethoven and Schubert and will be able to appreciate Weber’s contribution first.

          • fletcher

            Well, we’ll have Saint-Saëns to look forward to in 2021… and Debussy next year.

            • Armerjacquino

              Rossini next year too, aptly enough.

            • Lohenfal

              According to Future Met Wiki, the Met is planning a new production of Samson and a revival of Pelléas for next season. I couldn’t say if the centennials of their composers’ deaths are the reason, but it’s about time they were brought back.

            • fletcher

              Yeah, not sure what the story is on that -- S&D was meant to be the Michieletto production from Paris, I think, but now maybe not? Either way I won’t see it, no plans to visit Trumptown.

            • Lohenfal

              There will probably be an HD, since it’s an opening night with Garan?a. FMW lists Tresniak as the new director.

              I get to see some of the Trump properties all the time on my way to Lincoln Center. One gets used to such things if necessary.

            • fletcher

              Ah yes, thanks for reminding me. An HD would be nice for that, Kaufmann’s Dick, Adriana, maybe Carmélites. I imagine YNS will be on the podium for S&D? Honestly I’d vote Villaume; he was so attentive and intentional with Thaïs, another tricky score that can collapse under too much pressure. And we can all look forward to another round of reviews reminding us how it’s a terrible opera but just happens to bring out the best in everyone.

            • Camille

              Oh god NO! Is that what you all call it here now…”Trumptown”? How ghastly. What a sad end.

            • Kenneth Conway

              Oh, goodness, this moved me take a peak at Future Met Wiki, which I hadn’t done in quite a while, only to see that Bartlett Pear has been assigned to ruin one of my favorite operas, Porgy and Bess, in 2019-20 … and on opening night to boot. Note to self: must stay away from Future Met Wiki.

            • Lohenfal

              Mr. Gelb sometimes seems excessively loyal to the directors he favors, even if those directors haven’t done much first-rate work in his theater. He tends to prefer names which he feels will pull in a wider public, no matter what the reviews might say. Sher’s reputation in plays and musicals will probably be enough to ensure his career at the Met for the duration of Gelb’s tenure. Likewise, Michael Mayer will return, and maybe some others whom one would rather forget.

              My curiosity always leads me to sites like FMW, even if it means a feeling of dismay or dread at what’s to come.

        • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

          Didn’t Schubert bury Beethoven?

          • Camille

            Yes, he did, so let’s all get on the same page and sort these dates out here and now.

            von Weber died June 5, 1926 in London, England (while conducting his swan song Oberon).

            van Beethoven died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria, whilst shaking his fist at God in a thunderstorm (urban legend).

            Schubert died November 19, 1928 in Vienna, Austria, having had one final burst of absolutely death-defyingly brilliant musical output.

            For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord so comes like a thief in the night.

  • Camille

    An excellent review about an excellent production. Bravo e bis!

    It was so good I watched it the second time around all through, and was mightily grateful for all the *Regie to the Rescue*, too, as this opera is largely terra incognita to me and many.others.

    How I wish this would be what we will be seeing and hearing come this spring. Such a great work, it truly deaerves to be trotted out more than once every century.

  • David Campbell

    NELLY MIRICIOIU
    QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL, LONDON (1998)
    SEMIRAMIDE COMPLETE

    “Miricioiu looked stunningly stylish and acted totally within role. We got marvellously controlled, flawless, extended rapid runs and leaps. Top-note climaxes were warmly trumpeted while trills were crisp and perfectly placed.”

    Tom Sutcliffe -- Evening Standard
    One you may not have heard about
    A concert performance

    • David Prosser

      It wasn’t claimed that it was a complete list of concert Semiramides in London, but there was also the Prom a couple of years ago, which was excellent https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/05/semiramide-at-the-proms-review-opera-rara

      • David Campbell

        I’ve just realised how snarky my comment was, genuinely not my intention
        Ever since her Colbran the Muse cd i’ve Been waiting for more of Neopolitan Rossini from Joyce
        Here’s hoping she tackles Ermione next

      • Armerjacquino

        I should have mentioned the Prom, especially as Palazzi was the Assur there too.

        While I’m here, it’s ‘Alberto’ Zedda, Of course, not Antonio. Slip of the mind.

        • David Prosser

          And Daniela Barcellona. She was also at the Prom

          Being daft I hadn’t realised that it was you writing under your non-Parterre name. You’ve made me even more excited about seeing this later in the run

    • david alden

      Nelly Miricioiu was at the performance of Semiramide last night — she looks “stunningly stylish” as ever and was gracious and fun — it was a pleasure to meet her. The mood at ROH was sombre — Dima was a beloved part of the company and lived in London many years. Tony Pappano made a brief and very moving speech before the performance.

      • David Campbell

        I would have loved to have been there
        It was a great review for Semiramide

  • Rick

    Thanks for a great and very informative review.
    Not that it really matters -- but does anybody know if Ms Donato sings everything in the part of Semiramide in the same keys as Ms Sutherland (and Ms Anderson) did? I know that the part was written for Ms Colbran and, thus, not being placed that high -- and that Ms Sutherland’s high notes (and those of Ms Gruberova who has also sung the part) were to a large extent interpolations, But still….

    • Camille

      Mr Rick—
      As it happened, I did follow with a ecore one of the times, watching the transmission, however, important CAVEAT:

      As I am unfamiliar with the score excepting the highlights, (and this wasn’t an integral CE score I’d borrowed, either, but an ancient edition Kalmus), and…
      As there were many cuts, jumping around with juxtapositions of the music…
      it would be impossible for me to tell you anything but that she did follow the music [caveat] as it was written to a great degree, from what was apparent to me at that time.

      Also, as I recall at this moment, the music is written only to a B, and if there is an exceptional C I do not recall it. One must bear in mind the fact that this role was written for his wife, Signora Colbran, at a time in which her vocal powers had waned and, in fact, she was nearing the end of her career. As such, it would have been tailored to support her diminishing resources. All those extracurricular high notes above the high C are all interpolations, either personalised for the primadonna or taken from the regular Ricci cadenze books, or Marchesi, or Cinti-Damoreau, or the Rossini cadenze book published separately from the other Ricordi cadenze, or Richard Bonynge’s flights of fancy, or the Zedda CE version, which I haven’t seen, or lord only knows whatall the source! I think the role of Semiramide is a safe bet for a talented mezzosoprano. That said, her B naturals were hard-pressed and rsther squeezed out, but they did land, much as did some of the acuti here in the recent Norma, in which she had only to transpose one section of a duet, from what I recall and, of course, eschew any C, and It mattered little as it was a successful interpretation. I hope this is a little bit of a help but am sorry to not know the score well so as to be more concrete. Perhaps someone else who does will volunteer with more specific and precise detail.

      Rossini is rife with opportunities for the creative, inventive, and the nimble performer and, even loving the sovracuti in the way I do, I’d rather have a fully realised and intelligent performance. High notes are great but not when they involve APPARENT effort coupled with a gritty determination, just like in the current case of the squeezed-out D in alt of our Egyptian courtesan turned plaster saint, Thaïs.

      • Rick

        Thanks. I would think that the Colbran parts (especially the late ones) are a much better fit for Ms DiDonafo than the true soprano parts like Maria Stuarda (which required quite some transposition). I enjoyed her Rossini The Muse album.

        I have very good memories of a concert performance of Semiramide with Ms Caballé, Ms Pierotti, Mr Martinovich etc in Copenhagen maybe around 1990. Ms Caballé was extremely charming and has the audience eating out of her hand. I remember finding her very impressive.

  • RUPERTCHRISTIANSEN

    i was there on the first night and can enthusiastically endorse Jon Taylor’s views -- a superb performance, a vindication of a difficult opera, and another triumph for JDiD and Pappano

  • Roy Chalmers

    I saw my first Semiramide last night and there were many things to admire as well as considerable longeurs. Lawrence Brownlee’s performance gave me the most pleasure of the evening, together with the orchestral playing. I’d like to add that the Semiramide in 1998 with Nelly Miricioiu was with Chelsea Opera Group, which performs many rare works in concert. Coming up -- Mose in Egitto, 24 February 2018, Cadogan Hall.

  • Lindoro Almaviva

    IF you see Larry tomorrow wish him a happy birthday

  • For those who may never have seen it, Pizzi’s Aix production with Caballé and Horne in quite startling costumes is still available in full on YT.

    • PCally

      One of the better post 1970s Caballe performances imo, her and Horne blend better than Horne and Sutherland imo

      • And “monstres sacrés” never looked more monstrous!

  • Apulia

    As I read to the bottom of these posts I see below a picture of Hvorostovsky with a line that says “Best news of all” and when you click on it he is wished a happy 55th birthday. Could someone at Disqus please remove this?