Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit - Ensemble Correspondances

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances led by Sébastien Daucé, the glorious culmination of the finest London Festival of the Baroque in years on the theme "Treasures of the Grand Siècle". Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's announcement that he would be "Roi du Soleil", a ruler whose magnificence would transform France, and the world, in a new age of splendour.

Voices of Revolution – Prokofiev, Exile and Return

Seven, they are Seven , op.30; Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74. David Butt Philip (tenor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director), Philharmonia Voices, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band), Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 20 May 2018.

Charpentier Histoires sacrées, staged - London Baroque Festival

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, conducted by Sébastien Daucé, at St John's Smith Square, part of the London Festival of the Baroque 2018. This striking staging, by Vincent Huguet, brought out its austere glory: every bit a treasure of the Grand Siècle, though this grandeur was dedicated not to Sun God but to God.

No Time in Eternity: Iestyn Davies discusses Purcell and Nyman

Revolution, repetition, rhetoric. On my way to meet countertenor Iestyn Davies, I ponder if these are the elements that might form connecting threads between the music of Henry Purcell and Michael Nyman, whose works will be brought together later this month when Davies joins the viol consort Fretwork for a thought-provoking recital at Milton Court Concert Hall.

Aïda in Seattle: don’t mention the war!

When Francesca Zambello presented Aïda at her own Glimmerglass Opera in 2012, her staging was, as they say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Fighter planes strafed the Egyptian headquarters as the curtain rose, water-boarding was the favored form of interrogation, Radames was executed by lethal injection.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

Garsington's Douglas Boyd on Strauss and Skating Rinks

‘On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisławów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.’

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Grands motets de Lalande

Majesté, a new recording by Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre, of music by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) new from Alpha Classics. Le Poème Harmonique are regular visitors to London, appreciated for the variety of their programes. On Friday this week, (11/5) they'll be at St John's Smith Square as part of the London Festival of Baroque, with a programme titled "At the World's Courts".

Perpetual Night - Early English Baroque, Ensemble Correspondances

New from Harmonia Mundi, Perpetual Night. a superb recording of ayres and songs from the 17th century, by Ensemble Correspondances with Sébastien Daucé and Lucile Richardot. Ensemble Correspondances are among the foremost exponents of the music of Versailles and the French royalty, so it's good to hear them turn to the music of the Stuart court.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905)
09 Aug 2009

Semiramide at Caramoor

You need three or, ideally, four top-flight bel canto specialists to do anything like justice to Rossini’s Semiramide, his last and grandest Italian score. Otherwise why go to the expense?

Gioachino Rossini: Semiramide

Semiramide: Angela Meade; Arsace: Vivica Genaux; Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee; Assur: Daniel Mobbs. Bel Canto at Caramoor, Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Will Crutchfield, performance of July 31.

Above: A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905)

 

These folks must warble to make all the racket worthwhile. The doubt about the proper number involves the tenor, whose runs, divisions, ornaments, floating lines are equal in difficulty to those of the soprano, the mezzo and the bass, but who is incidental to the plot — remember the plot? As the opera contains nearly four hours of music, it is rare to hear it unsnipped, and the tenor part — two major double arias — is where most producers start snipping.

Semiramide is an opera with everything: spectacular solos, awesome duets, intense ensembles, earthquakes, prophecies, ghosts, incest, insanity, coronations, murder in the dark — well, almost everything: In deference to Mesopotamian weather patterns, this is the rare Rossini opera without a thunderstorm. At Caramoor we very nearly got one anyway — it was a dark and stormy day. At intermission, I had to warn people to turn off their frogs. Frogs can’t resist a cabaletta — in the right throat, cabalettas sound like mating cries.

Sutherland and Horne used to make rather a vehicle-à-deux of this piece — the fraught Semiramide-Arsace relationship is the center of the drama — but the basso villain, Assur, who sings big duets with each of them as well as a coloratura mad scene, should be able to rattle away on their level. Sadly, Samuel Ramey, the first bass in modern times up to Sutherland-Horne bel canto speed, did not assume the role until after Sutherland had renounced it, but he made a memorable antagonist for Caballé and Anderson, when they were singing the title role, and Arsace belonged to Horne well into the ’90s. Today, Rossini technique is more widely studied — have the new crop of singers the chops, the musicality, the endurance to bring this exotic piece to life? The man who would know, methinks, is Will Crutchfield, and last week he led a very grand concert performance of damn near the whole score in Philip Gossett’s critical edition, in the Venetian theater at the Caramoor Summer Festival some forty miles north of New York.

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness, perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never made a major Technicolor picture of it. In Rome’s Capitoline Museum, generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac, hang seven tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her, a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s death and her succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her armies to conquer Abyssinia or India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real Samu-ramat was simply queen regent of Assyria for a few years), and it’s a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Agamemnon and Roland.

Semiramis.gifSemiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon 1624 by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591-1666) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Voltaire, whose tragedies are only remembered now, if at all, as opera libretti, wrote his Semiramis, Rossini’s source, on themes purloined from Clytemnestra and Orestes: The queen has usurped the throne of her poisoned husband. After a successful reign, she yields to popular demand for a new king, choosing Arsace, a Scythian warrior far her junior — and offering him her hand. Before the misalliance can take place, the ghost of vengeful King Ninus interferes. It turns out Arsace is the long-lost Ninias, Semiramis’s son — and that Ninus was murdered by his wife and her then lover, Assur, prince and claimant to the throne. Complicating matters slightly, Assur, Arsace and an intrusive Indian prince named Idreno (that damned tenor) are all in love with Azema, a princess with surprisingly little to sing. Arsace lunges for Assur in the dark, kills Semiramis instead, and in this horrified state of mind is hailed by an exultant chorus as the king of Babylon. Irony intended. (Running time, uncut: roughly four hours.)

Semiramide calls for a dramatic soprano of range and power as well as endless breath control and virtuoso singing — stars like Patti and Melba long kept the piece alive, but even they worked it best when there was a spectacular mezzo as Arsace — a trouser role — to match them. Assur is a coloratura bass, Idreno a coloratura tenor, and the High Priest, Oroë, too, has some choice warbling to do in ensembles. The chorus parts are by no means negligible — Crutchfield’s forces were small but elegantly persuasive — and the orchestra is, for Italy in 1823, sizable and virtuosic. The overture is the best-known piece in the score, Rossini’s most elaborate treatment of themes from an opera as prelude and character portrait to date, only surpassed six years later in his last opera, William Tell. On the present occasion, heavy humidity did not some damage to timbre, the drums often out of balance or tune, the lyrical explosions of horn, bassoon, clarinet in generally decent form.

But you want to know about the singing of the four stars, don’t you? In fact, that’s the only thing you want to hear about, eh? Okay, here’s the report: Sutherland, Horne and Ramey they weren’t. But today they don’t need to be to put the opera over, and there were long stretches of delirious, generally excellent vocalism. They were cool at their work, and even showed signs of knowing what characters and situations they were playing. Everyone knew what Rossini was about, and was eager to show off what they knew. A lot of why we come to bel canto is to hear people show off, and they had all assimilated that. The only thing I seriously missed in the barrage of rapid-fire passagework from all hands was a genuine musical trill — there was no such thing all night, from anyone, which disappointed those who learned this score from the Sutherland-Horne recordings. Bel canto singers used to focus on their trills; perhaps they no longer bother.

semiramide2.gifSemiramide costruisce Babilonia by Edgar Degas [Museo d'Orsay]

Angela Meade is a young so-called dramatic coloratura — perhaps too young for some of the roles she is rushing into. At her Met debut — just last year — a last-minute substitution in Ernani, she seemed talented but mostly prudent, not risking anything in the first act or two in the way of volume or involvement so that she could be sure of having both for the concluding trio that pricked up the ears. It was a good substitution but not what an Elvira ought to be.

As the scheduled diva, in a major role like Semiramide, she still had problems warming to the task, the voice almost inaudible for the two quartets and uneven in her sortita, the famous “Bel raggio lusinghier”: sometimes a clear, lustrous phrase, sometimes a muddy one. The first duet, “Serbami ognor,” was also cautious, but by the time of the great Coronation-Apparition Scene where Semiramis must be seen — and heard — to command the court, the populace, the entire natural world — so that her terror when the ghost shows up is all the more striking — she was fully in charge, tossing phrases of good size and cool beauty through the crowd. Her duets in Act II were also lovely, very well supported. There were moments of sheer vocal gelato when Meade was singing circular arpeggios — up and then down and then up again — while Vivica Genaux harmonized with perfectly judged triplets against each of Meade’s swift, beautiful notes. It is easy to see why bel canto lovers like Crutchfield adore Meade’s voice, but she will have to work on getting into gear sooner and staying there. She may or may not have a major talent, but she is certainly not ready for the big roles.

Genaux, looking awfully pretty and not the least bit masculine, gave, as Arsace, the most finished performance of the evening, sounding remarkably like Marilyn Horne — not because she sang Horne’s music or in a similar style, but because of a striking similarity of timbre. If anything, Genaux has a richer, less reedy texture to her instrument. Those sitting close might be distracted by the wobbles of her lips during passagework (this may be problematic on video performances), but no one hearing the spectacular effects this habit gives rise to will have any objection to it. She was accomplished, smooth, elegant, indefatigable, warmly in character: the evening’s star — though some regretted the absence of masculine grit in the Horne or Podles manner.

Daniel Mobbs, the wicked Assur, displayed the least impressive instrument of the quartet, a voice without attractive colors, dry and, in the lower reaches, sometimes flat. The expansive threat that Ramey used to bring to the role was not here, nor the stage-grabbing hamminess appropriate to the mad scene. He is an able singer with impressive ease in passagework, but not a producer of fireworks; the adversarial duets lacked thrill.

Lawrence Brownlee had the thankless role of Idreno — but thankless it wasn’t on this occasion, as his arias were met with joy. Brownlee has rapidly become a favorite with American bel canto audiences, our homegrown lirico to set against Florez and Banks, and he tossed his smallish, pretty, plangent voice with total security up and down a very broad range (and very quickly, too), occasionally rising to some sizable and solid high notes where the other stars tended to duck them — probably because they are a modern stylistic whim. Brownlee also acted stern and displeased — suiting Idreno’s role of odd man out — which can’t have been easy considering the audience reaction he was getting.

Despite the rain and the trip and the frogs and the heat, this was a performance to remind us all what fun Semiramide can be, and should be, in the proper hands — and throats. Ending just before midnight, the end didn’t come too soon — but I think most of us were sorry it was a one-shot, that we could not go back later in the week to compare another such performance.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):