Gilt trip

As a diehard completist I felt guilty as the Met’s scattered, campy revival of Semiramide lumbered toward its abrupt conclusion after nearly four hours. I should have been more outraged about the cuts inflicted on Rossini’s great final Italian opera but frankly I didn’t want more. 

If hard-working Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Ildar Abdrazakov and Javier Camarena weren’t quite the show-stopping virtuosi needed to fully bring this grand and difficult work to life, they still provided some moments of pleasure despite being consistently undermined by Maurizio Benini’s flaccid conducting.

Before it even hit the stage Monday evening this Semiramide had attracted headlines when John Copley who had returned to remount his 1990 production was fired several weeks ago for making inappropriate remarks to a chorus member. Supposedly rehearsals were thrown into chaos by this turn of events but I failed to detect any negative effect of his absence. It struck me as the same glitzy and inert pageant that it had been when I saw it a week or so after its premiere.

Back then a dazzling Lella Cuberli, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey and Stanford Olsen distracted me from Copley’s empty symmetrical parade in John Conklin’s busy faux-decaying set of collapsed pillars and broken cornices. Michael Stennett’s luxurious but hilariously over-the-top costumes evoked not so much a sophisticated ancient civilization as a Babylonian Halloween parade with each turban and crown topped by an ever-higher array of plumes.

Having seen Copley’s similarly shallow and decorative production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare when it came to the Met two years prior to Semiramide I wasn’t surprised back then that the audience would be treated to lots of intense stare-downs followed by myriad variations of nostril-flaring and cape-twirling and so it was again this go-around as overseen by stage director Roy Rallo.

One suspects that Copley doesn’t really think these challenging but static works are theatrically viable and the director’s job should be simply “sculpting beautiful stage pictures” as Philip Gossett pithily noted about the director in Divas and Scholars, his essential study of 19th century Italian opera.

Unfortunately the Met’s cast this time consisted of mere mortals instead of bel canto deities with the biggest applause opening night easily going to Camarena who endowed the superfluous character of Idreno with a bounty of ringing high notes rather too often inelegantly inserted into the musical line. He seemed over-eager to make his mark in his limited role and his stentorian singing grew increasingly effortful.

The Mexican tenor has never been particularly fluent in florid music but he slithered effectively enough what surely will be his final Rossini role at the Met. Unfortunately he was the victim of the Met’s most egregious musical meddling (the cut list ran to two full single-spaced pages): for the repeat of the cabaletta of his second aria the necessary chorus exited so he sang it alone. My jaw literally dropped at this inexcusably idiotic decision; I can only imagine what Gossett might have said about this musical barbarism.

The last time I saw Semiramide staged was in Barcelona in 2005 with Abdrazakov as the villainous Assur, a part he had sung previously in Lima, Pesaro and Madrid. The intervening 12 years with its steady diet of increasingly heavier roles have not been particularly kind to the Russian bass whose clumsy negotiation of his role’s extensive coloratura passages was dismaying.

He redeemed himself somewhat in his lyrical aria in the final scene at Nino’s tomb and at least his theatrical flamboyance helped to enliven the long evening as he looked particularly dishy in his bare-chested Ramey-esque strutting clad in a gold “Mr. Assyria 812 BC” sash.

DeShong did lots of difficult things well as the murdered king’s avenger but her small-scaled portrayal ultimately lacked the vocal and dramatic flair needed for Arsace. As she had previously demonstrated in the baroque atrocity The Enchanted Island she wielded a flexible and wide-ranging claret-colored mezzo that shirked none of the immense challenges Rossini threw at her.

Arsace probably lies too low for her as her excursions into chest lacked the resonance that her shining high notes had. Her diminutive stature may have helped to emphasize the returning hero’s youth and immaturity but ultimately his thirst for vengeance and ultimate assumption of the throne failed to convince.

Like many, my first encounter with Meade was as Semiramide nine years ago in concert at the Caramoor Festival. As carefully coached and conducted by Will Crutchfield, her murderous Babylonian queen was a revelation with shining high notes and an impressive mastery of the yards and yards of little black notes Rossini wrote for his wife Isabella Colbran in their final collaboration.

In the years since Meade has grown into an often satisfying, often frustrating artist. Overall her Semiramide was less successful than her Met Norma just two months ago.

As at that Bellini performance she took a long while to warm up and failed to tame her strong vibrato which resulted in a lot of unfocused singing in the long first act. The celebrated “Bel raggio” failed to make its mark as its awkward ornaments fizzled, and a disturbing lack of dynamic finesse resulted in most everything before intermission delivered at forte or louder.

Though not the most compelling actress, Meade however has an easy regal grandeur that dominated the final scene of the first act during which Semiramide attempts to name her new consort. She was, of course, interrupted by the ghost of her murdered husband in a finale swiped by Copley from his old Don Giovanni staging.

But Meade was transformed at the beginning of the second act and easily drove Abdrazakov into the dust in their power-duel of a duet. The dramatic transition to guilty mother suited her and she partnered DeShong more effectively in their rueful second duet than she had earlier, and her final moving prayer of remorse found the intermittent harshness of her voice finally vanquished.

With a dynamic propulsive conductor these disparate elements might still have coalesced into a satisfactory Rossini experience but as usual Benini is not that musician. A suave and exciting overture promised much but almost immediately those hopes were dashed as he quickly settled into a sensible, moderate, utterly boring reading of the score.

Semiramide was the first Rossini seria I heard and I still retain a long and inordinate fondness for it born when I became obsessed with the Richard Bonynge recording I sought out during my delirious pre-teen Sutherland-Horne Norma-fixation in 1970. By this production’s sixth performance and HD transmission on March 10 I hold out some faint hope that everyone will settle in and a more focused and coherent Semiramide might result as it will almost certainly be the last revival this ambitious opera will receive at the Met in most of our lifetimes.

Those intrigued by what this Rossini work done complete can sound like might explore a sensational live recording with June Anderson, Horne, Ramey and Douglas Ahlstedt I posted here a couple weeks ago.

Photo: Ken Howard