Stunning Semiramide

24 Sep

Rossini has a reputation for idleness – all those self-borrowings and the early retirement.  What struck me at Opera Rara’s concert performance of Semiramide at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the Proms season, on 4th September, was how incredibly prolific and hard-working he must have been.

First there is the sheer number of his operas.  He wrote Semiramide in 1822, when he was thirty.  Since his first full length opera, La pietra del paragone in 1812, by my calculations, he wrote almost  thirty operas, most of them full length pieces.  Small wonder that he did some borrowing.  Secondly, I was reminded of the length of those operas.  Admittedly, he occasionally used pupils and assistants to write some of the less important bits, but the bulk of these operas come in at well over two and a half hours of music each.

The length was particularly visible in Semiramide.  Mark Elder admitted to a few cuts in it but even so this concert began at 7 pm and was not scheduled to finish until 10.45.  When I left at 10.20 to catch my last feasible train, that seemed a bit optimistic.  It’s a shame that the Prom organisers did not take account of Sunday trains and start the performance half an hour earlier.  What was not evident was any borrowing: this is a wholly original, carefully constructed, very convincing opera.

It’s a very classical story.  Semiramide and Assur murdered her husband, Nino but their child, Ninia was saved and brought up as Arsace.  He becomes a fine general and, of course, Semiramide, falls in love with him.  He is in love with Azema, who is loved by the rival prince Idreno.  Act I sets up the situations and ends with a dramatic appearance of Nino’s ghost to thwart Semiramide’s intended marriage to Arsace.  In Act II, Arsace discovers his true identity, has a confrontation with his mother and ends up killing Assur and, accidentally, Semiramide.  It’s an opera of arias and duets with, as ever, some really outstanding ensemble numbers: that to the end of Act I being one of the finest that Rossini ever wrote.

But it is all very long and it moves at a leisurely pace, exploring emotions rather than providing significant dramatic action or confrontation.  For my money the shorter, equally classical, but hugely charged Ermione is the more convincing, exciting opera and, even if it doesn’t quite have arias to match those for Semiramide and Arsace or duets which quite reach Giorno d’orrore, it has a finale that challenges it and an intensity and sheer energy that this opera lacks.  I’ve no idea how you’d begin to stage this piece – and feel some trepidation for the planned ROH production.  It works remarkably well as a concert.

In his essay on opera, Kobbe remarked that Semiramide appeared to have had its day but, if there a soprano and mezzo ever appeared cabable of doing justice to Semiramide and Arsace, then it might return..  It’s a mark of how things have changed that there seem to be one or two singers in each category capable of achieving that.  We had Albina Shagamuratova in the title role.  She’s making her reputation as a Queen of the Night, Konstanze and in that high lying baroque field.    I was hugely impressed by the flexibility of her coloratura, by her sense of dynamic range and the sheer force of her performance.  Maybe she lacks the range of colour that Sutherland brings to the role and, perhaps, in a staged performance, she’d bring out more of the anguish in the part, but this was an enormously impressive performance.

Daniella Barcellona was Arsace.  I wondered at the start if she was unwell but she warmed up and had me beguiled by the warmth of her mezzo, the agility of her runs and the intelligence of her acting.  Again, a staged performance might bring out more of the passion in the role but both her arias were astonishingly well sung.

The supporting cast was excellent.  Barry Banks stood in late as Idreno and, apart from the occasional slightly shriek high note, delivered a fluent, idiomatic and agile account of one of Rossini’s challenging tenor roles.   Was an excellent Assur from Mirko Palazzi, very strongly acted and I was sorry to miss the high point of his role at the end of Act II.    Gianluca Buratto Was a very strong Oroe, the high priest, while James Platt boomed convincingly as the ghost.  I’d be very happy with a cast like this in any theatre you care to mention.

Mark Elder conducted.the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  They were on outstanding form and reminded me of how good Rossini sounds on period instruments.  They played with outstanding commitment and pretty untiringly trough a hugely long evening. – the first act alone came out at only just under two hours.  Elder’s conducting was persuasive in so many ways: elegant, wonderfully phrased, the pauses, the balance of instruments beautifully achieved, the singers intelligently supported and there was a precision about it that was hugely impressive.  And yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was something calculated about it: a performance topiarised – every pause weighed, every dynamic graded and that the result was a slightly lack of passion and of spontaneity: you admired, you weren’t caught up.

Minor cavils.  It was a great evening and  I’m looking forward to getting the CD.  It added to my admiration of Rossini and convinced me that here is an opera that needs to be seen.

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