Semiramide, Rossini’s last Italian opera before his move to Paris, was immensely popular in the 19th century; it all but vanished in the 20th. It’s the last classical Italian opera, a style that succumbed to French Grand Opera and to Italian romantic and more realistic opera. The opera has a plot that makes the Gordian Knot look like a shoelace. The Met brought it back in 1990 after almost a century of neglect. It is this production by John Copley that the Met has revived after an additional quarter of a century of hibernation. The 1990 production succeeded for three reasons: Marilyn Horne, Sam Ramey, and conductor James Conlon. Their absence from the current run of the opera sinks Rossini’s great work or at least makes it list.
It’s a great opera only if you have great singers and a spirited conductor. There are four main roles: Semiramide (soprano), Arsace (mezzo), Idreno(tenor), and Assur (bass). A first rate soprano can handle the title role. The tenor part is very demanding, but Idreno seems to have wandered onstage after taking a wrong turn on his way to Cenerentola. You could remove him from the work and few would notice his absence. His part seems to have been written because Rossini needed a tenor for balance. Javier Camarena was great as the Indian prince, but its the mezzo and bass roles that makes or breaks this show.
Arsace was written for a contralto whose coloratura was flawless and who could go both very high and low while maintaining a rich tone throughout her range. Marilyn Horne was created to sing roles like Arsace. If her rendition is still rattling around in your head any ordinary mortal will suffer from the comparison. Elizabeth Deshong gave a fine reading of this part. Her fioratura is outstanding. Her tone at the top of her range is a little forced and she struggled with her lowest notes. Still a terrific performance thats stands comparison with anyone but Horne.
Assur was written for the great bass Filippo Galli (1783-1853). He was a particular favorite of Rossini and was noted for his vocal agility. Coloratura basses are as rare as impartiality. The only one I ever heard was Ramey. Assur is as demanding a part as is Arsace and he’s equally important to the story. He even gets a mad scene near the end of the opera.
Ildar Abdrazakov is a fine bass. It’s taking little away from him to point out that he lacks the florid vocal technique needed for his almost impossible part. I can’t think of anyone now active who could have done the role better.
The title role was very well sung by Angela Meade. Her soprano is bright and handles Rossini’s rollercoaster ride with aplomb. Her top notes are a little edgy, but she was still excellent as the mythical Assyrian queen. I don’t like to mention this, but I’m writing about a telecast and Ms Meade’s weight is beyond a level that allows any hint of verisimilitude or even the prospect of long term survival.
The young American Bass-baritone, Ryan Speedo Green, has a compelling life story that’s worth checking out. He showed a dark and resonant voice as the priest Oroe. He’s a singer to watch. The Met’s website has his appearance history with the company screwed up. They ought to fix it post haste.
As I’ve intimated above, if you can’t find clones of Horne and Ramey, you’d best not perform Semiramide. The opera’s brilliance and sheer musicality won’t be realized without them. A conductor of panache and orchestral thrust is also necessary for this opera to make its way. Maurizio Benini led a rather tepid reading of Rossini’s intricate score. The famous overture failed to come off as the bravura piece it is. The great finale to the first act, ‘Qual mesto gemito’, with its contrapuntal entrances by all the principals didn’t make the dramatic effect that it should. This defect falls to the guy behind the baton.
I don’t mean to suggest that the opera was a flop, just that this performance was unable to reveal the attractions that captivated 19th century audiences. The second act was better than the first. The two big duets, one in each act, between Semiramide and Arsace showed where Bellini got the idea for the soprano-mezzo duets that are featured in Norma. The telecast made for a long afternoon even allowing that a lot of Rossini’s music was cut.
The sets and costumes looked like they has been updated from those of the Flash Gordon Serial, the one that featured Buster Crabbe. If they ever redo it, Abdrazakov could try out for Ming the Merciless. If you really want to see how great his opera can be get the DVD of the 1990 Met production. If you can find it, it’s out of currently out of print.
March 10, 2018
Oroe………………..Ryan Speedo Green
Nino’s Ghost…………Jeremy Galyon
Set Designer…………John Conklin
Costume Designer……..Michael Stennett
Lighting Designs……..John Froelich
Stage Director……….Roy Rallo
TV Director……….Barbara Willis Sweete