Say what you will about Naxos, but this company has created a sizeable number of recordings of works on the periphery of the standard repertory and have managed to document quite a few interesting singers in the bargain-and at bargain prices. Such is the case with this very enjoyable recording of Semiramide from the Wildbad festival in Germany captured in July of last year and culled from three of the performances.

The last of ten operas Rossini would write for the woman he considered the greatest interpreter of his works, Isabella Colbran, premiered at the Fenice for the Carnival season of 1823.  Sadly, although he had tailored the role of the Babylonian Queen to his muse’s waning gifts, she did not find favor with the public.  The opera thought, was a resounding hit, racking up 28 performances in its first run. Having achieved the pinnacle of the baroque tradition in Italian opera, Rossini would shortly decamp for Paris, grandeur, and retirement.

Odd though it may seem, the town of Wildbad has been holding an annual Rossini festival since 1988. The musical performance here is of the highest order and much of the credit must go to the Virtuosi Brunensis in the pit and their leader Antonino Fogliani. The Sinfonia sets the tone with delicious pizzicato strings, fleet winds, and a strong timpani with a light touch on the triangle. The horns seem a tad muted but that may be a stylistic choice. Playing on the whole is extremely seductive throughout the evening and reminds us how much Rossini benefits from a strong but transparent conception. In the critical edition prepared by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda, it’s a glorious reading of the opera just from orchestral standpoint alone.

The Camerata Bach Choir has been imported from Pozna? in Poland for the occasion and they do a spectacular job with Rossini’s choral writing. They sound like an unusually youthful group and give a very alert and nuanced performance that shows Rossini to be more gifted at choral writing than perhaps I had appreciated before.

It’s no secret that in Semiramide the composer demands his singers to be at the top of their game from the start and there we have this recording’s one Achilles heel. For although they are an accomplished group, the quartet of soloists are all much better once they’ve gotten their first scenes behind them.

I’m sorry to say that Andrea Mastroni as the High Priest Oroe sounds, from his dry tone,  to be be a much older man than he appears in his bio. He’s also dedicated to singing every note on the page regardless of the effort it takes at the evening’s outset. He improves as he progresses but its not a cure just an abatement of symptoms.

Lorenzo Regazzo has established a distinguished career as a basso cantante and here he tackles the tremendously difficult role of Assur with admirable success. He negotiates the old school bel canto line with ample breath and flexibility. The basic tonal quality sounds  a tad woolly, muffling his accuracy at times. He sings his final “mad” scene uncut with exemplary energy and muscle.

The most excellent liner notes tactlessly remind us that the tenor role of Idreno was really only written to give the three protagonists a break from the stage. It would then seem an embarrassment of riches to have John Osborn in this part. Not ideally firm at his first entrance, he smudges his runs but, given what those runs are like, it’s hard to imagine the tenor who wouldn’t.  Once he’s gotten his sea legs, after the opening scene, he’s flinging off roulades like the possessed and lightly pinging the stratosphere with avidity. His act I scena is stunning even if he does lurch at his climactic phrase. He’s even more dizzyingly agile in his second act aria when he’s so warmed up it doesn’t even sound like work.

Marianna Pizzolato in the role of Arsace was a revelation to me. She has a pungent merlot-colored mezzo and keeps everything beautifully on the breath. If she seems a tad careful in her opening scena she is always fleet and accurate. Her da capo is tastefully decorated until she pulls out the stops for a final high B, winning bravos from the house. Her slightly hooded tone allows for easy drops into the sepulchral depths of her range occasionally making her sound seductively like a contralto. “In si barbara sciagura” at the top of the second act finds her totally in the zone and it’s a great piece of singing.

here are a lot of reasons a soprano might want to change her name late career: marriage is one. An unfortunate accident at the costumier’s involving a rival diva from which you were completely exonerated and cleared of all charges is another. A third might be stuggling with a marquee-busting name like Alexandrina Pendatchanska— who now calls herself Alex Penda.

She made her professional debut at the tender age of 17 years old singing Violetta in her native Bulgaria. I remember being underwhelmed by her much-hyped live recording of Massenet’s Esclarmonde which appeared a mere 5 years later but did enjoy her recent Elettra for René Jacobs’ Idomeneo.

A singer not entirely in control of formidable gifts, Penda is especially tangy and vivid in recitative and her redoubtable technique allows her to meet, if not surpass, the vocal requirements of the titular character. If she’s not the mistress of accuracy Rossini demands her interpretation is so committed you don’t necessarily care about the means by which she succeeds. However, sustained cantilena in the upper part of the voice brings forward an unattractive oscillation and notes at the top of the staff turn vinegary.

The Act II duet with Arsace,”Giorno d’orrore!” finds Fogliani on the brisk side but still receptive with rubato when his singers require it. Unfortunately his breezy pace ruins that delicious “time standing still” feeling that this duet normally induces. Ms. Penda attempts an ungainly high note right before the repeat of the cavatina and then the hell-for-leather cabaletta finds them both in full yodel due to its breakneck pace. An unfortunate volte face that must have been more exciting in the theatre from its reception.

The audience applauds long and loud and even does a bit of foot stomping for Ms. Pizzolato in the second act and at the finale.  Sonics are absolutely superb and the engineers are to be particularly commended. A very nice booklet that, although it lists all the cue points on a single page in magnifying glass print, does include singer’s bios. A full libretto is available online.

I cut my teeth, as I am sure we all did, on the Sutherland/Horne recording of this opera, which is 50 minutes shorter than this one, due mostly to their inadequate supporting cast. How the world has changed in 50 years! Though this new entry wouldn’t be my first choice for Semiramide, it’s an excellent value and worth owning for the uniformly stylish singing performances.