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Reviews

<em>Semiramide<em> at Covent Garden
30 Nov 2017

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Semiramide at Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Michele Pertusi (Assur) and ROH cast

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

Even with some customary cuts, there are over three and a half hours of music, stretching the attention span of most modern audiences. So, some enticing ‘crowd-pullers’ are required, and the ROH served them up in the form of a prima donna non plus ultra, a star-studded cast, and a staging by David Alden that emphasises the Shakespearean scale of the opera’s moral complexities and emotional conflicts.

Crime and punishment, guilt and retribution are at the heart of Semiramide. The opera, which is based on Voltaire’s play Sémiramis, is driven by an innocent hero’s quest for revenge and a guilty anti-heroine’s desire for redemption. The sins of the protagonists rival the most heinous misdeeds to be found in mythic Greek tragedy, and a Freudian would have a field-day with a plot whose deviancies include Oedipal attraction and matricide.

The eponymous Queen of Babylon may be the builder of the wondrous Hanging Gardens, but her wickedness must be purged if her kingdom of Assyria is to be renewed. She has murdered her husband, Nino, and now rules alongside her accomplice and lover, Assur. Forced to name her heir, she chooses the swashbuckling soldier Arsace to whom she is attracted but who, unbeknown to Semiramide, is in fact her long-lost son. In any case, Arsace shares with Assur and Prince Idremo an infatuation with Princess Azema. It takes the divine/supernatural intervention of the gods and a ghost to ensure justice is delivered.

Reviewing Opera Rara’s concert performance of Semiramide at the Royal Albert Hall - one of the highlights of the 2016 Proms season - I commented that ‘a concert staging of the opera was perfectly apt’, given that Rossi’s libretto relates a drawn-out mission to avenge an assassination which has taken place years before while the perpetrators of the crime are essentially in the hands of the gods. Director David Alden opts for a monumentalism which reflects the epic nature of the protagonists’ emotional maelstrom, and which is complemented by chiaroscuro effects (lighting by Michael Bauer) that enhance the air of intrigue and secrecy. But, the vastness and majesty of Paul Steinberg’s swivelling, lowering, expanding sets, while making the most of the massive extent of the ROH stage, don’t do much to pep up the drama.

Semiramide Cast Act 1 .jpgCast, Act 1. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

We may not be in Babylon, but we seem to be in the modern-day Middle East. Tyranny is not geography-specific though, so there are allusions - through iconographic propaganda; drab utilitarian locales juxtaposed with richly-hued ceramic mosaics; a cornucopia of marvellously detailed costumes (Buki Shiff has conjured a dressing-up box of every child’s dreams); and choreographic stylisation (Beate Vollack) - to the Soviet Union, North Korea and south-east Asia, as well as to caliphates of yore and now. There are turbaned Turks, shuffling Islamic priests and women in burkas, alongside embroidered Mughal robes and modern business suits. Alden’s general concern seems to be the trouble that brews when politics meets religion, but there’s no clearly articulated ‘argument’, political or otherwise.

Didonato and Pertusi Act 1 Bill Cooper.jpgJoyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Michele Pertusi (Assur). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

There are, however, visual and gestural motifs a-plenty. The ROH Chorus - in tremendous voice and offering some seriousness to complement the splendour - sport a fabulous array of costumes and wave i-Pads and hymn-books with equal fervour. The High Priest of the Magi, Oreo, is kitted out with some natty pink-tinted shades. There’s a small child clutching a stuffed-toy horse who drifts, then rolls, around the stage. Assur has more medals on his uniform than Prince Philip, while Princess Azema - whose future will be determined by others - is confined inside a gold lama straight-jacket and afflicted by, alternately, arm-flailing fits and catatonia; moreover, her feet seem to have been bound Chinese-style, as she has to be fireman-lifted on and off the stage. The smoke-swirling resurrection of Nino’s ghost (acted by John O’Toole) owes more to Bram Stoker than to Hamlet; well, that will teach Semiramide for disrespectfully plonking her goblet of red wine on her dead husband’s coffin.

O'Toole and DiDonato Cooper.jpgJohn O’Toole (Nino’s ghost). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

In the opening scene, the citizens, who are celebrating the anticipated announcement by their Queen of the identity of the next King, assemble at the feet of a huge, pedestalled statue: the prophet Baal has been replaced by a modern-day dictator, though there are distinct shades of Ozymandios. Later we get the full picture, in the form of enormous wall-paintings of a royal clan who bear a disconcerting resemblance to the US First Family. In one looming portrait, the King raises an arm à la Statue of Liberty while the Alpine view evokes the Romantic questing of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog - though, facing us, he’s not really inviting us to explore his vision, but showing us what he has already conquered.

Semiramide is an opera in which the Queen’s redemption is necessary for the renewal of her state, and fortunately for this production, it is itself redeemed by some fabulous singing, not least by Joyce DiDonato in the title role. What struck me most was what a perceptive, intelligent and thoughtful singing-actress DiDonato is. She can rattle off the pyrotechnics and infuse the Queen’s lines with beguiling lyricism; but she does so much more than this. She shapes each tiny gesture into meaningful musical utterances which communicate every iota of Semiramide’s distress, desire and dilemma. She moves from whispered pianissimo to rich projection with startling control, and her vocal and dramatic performance perfectly accords with the visual ‘progression’. The Queen’s emotions are initially confined by black turban and veil; she then declares her regality in resplendent red and gold, topped with a sparkling crown; finally, her inner life is revealed as her dark tresses tumble over her midnight-blue silk nightdress in her bedroom colloquy with Assur. DiDonato’s understanding of her character - and how to communicate it - and her utter commitment are reason alone to see this production.

Barcellona Act 1.jpgDaniela Barcellona (Arsace). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

In 2016, at the RAH, I found Daniela Barcellona’s interpretation of the role of Arsace impressively focused and profound. Here, she was less consistently in command: her voice retained its agility and dusky beauty, and there could be no doubting her dramatic presence and boldness, but at the bottom her mezzo seemed less focused this time around. That said, the two mezzos formed a stunningly affective blend in their numerous duets, and here Barcellona’s lyrical flights really did convey inner feeling and enlarge the emotional field.

The ladies didn’t entirely steal the show, though. Lawrence Brownlee is a superb Rossinian stylist, and it was a pity that we were not treated to both of Idreno’s arias. The tenor’s high excursions and expansive phrasing were as effortless as his dramatic presentation of this minor role was confident and credible - a good thing, too, when some Bollywood garlands and gallivanting threatened to reduce this Mughal raja to ridicule.

Idremo Bollywood.jpgLawrence Brownlee (Idreno). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Assur’s mad scene was delivered with dark passion allied with accuracy by Michele Pertusi. Pertusi’s Assur is no pantomime villain: the Italian bass offered a nuanced characterisation which conveyed a complex psychology expressed through dynamic and tonal variety. In Pertusi’s and DiDonato’s Act 2 duet, their mutually destructive anger and rivalry was laid brutally bare.

All credit to Jacquelyn Stucker for her forbearance, trussed up as Princess Azema was inside gilded shackles. She sang with directness and clear tone, and it was good to see this Jette Parker Young Artist partnered by two other young singers on the ROH scheme: South Korean tenor Konu Kim (Mitrane) and South African bass Simon Shibambu (Voice of Nino’s Ghost). Due to illness, Hungarian bass Bálint Szabó was unable to sing the role of Oroe and he was replaced by Simon Wilding.

Stucker Azema.jpgJacquelyn Stucker (Azema). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

In the pit, Pappano aimed for and achieved pin-point precision and definition: it was clear from the overture, and from the horns’ beautifully shaped first theme, that lightness would prevail, and Pappano remained sympathetic to his singers throughout while evidently having the structural measure of the sprawling score. But, even Pappano couldn’t keep the momentum raging through a first Act lasting nearly 2 hours, although Act 2 did turn up the intensity.

Alden seems to have been intent on injecting irony into Rossini’s seria drama, but the singers ensured that the emotional depths of the opera were unfolded. And, DiDonato’s contribution cannot be underestimated: she balanced fire, fear and fatalism with astonishing conviction and credibility.

Claire Seymour

Rossini: Semiramide

Semiramide - Joyce DiDonato, Assur - Michele Pertusi, Arsace - Daniela Barcellona, Idreno - Lawrence Brownlee, Azema - Jacquelyn Stucker, Oroe - Simon Wilding, Mitrane - Konu Kim, Nino's Ghost - Simon Shibambu; Director - David Alden, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Set designer - Paul Steinberg, Costume designer - Buki Shiff, Lighting designer - Michael Bauer, Choreographer - Beate Vollack, Orchetra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Tuesday 28th November 2017.

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