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Rossini:<em>Semiramide</em>.  Opera Rara: Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
15 Sep 2018

A Stunning Semiramide from Opera Rara

In early October 1822, Gioachino Rossini summoned the librettist Gaetano Rossi to a villa (owned by his wife, the soprano Isabella Colbran) in Castenaso, just outside Bologna. Their project: to work on a new opera, which would be premiered during the Carnival in Venice on 3rd February the following year, based on the legend of Queen Semiramide.

Rossini:Semiramide. Opera Rara: Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

A review by Claire Seymour

Opera Rara ORC57 [4CDs]

£44.87  Click to buy

Rossi apparently found the environment creatively advantageous, writing to Giacomo Meyerbeer (with whom he had previous worked on the dramatization of an aspect of the same legend) that Rossini’s home was, ‘Delicious, really, in all its pleasant surroundings: beautiful gardens, a voluptuous small chapel, lake, hills, woods, and a magnificent, elegant house. We’re drafting the outline: he approved all the situations that I had already settled on. He began to compose yesterday’. Work went well, and Rossi later reported, ‘We’ve made an Introduzione a la Meyerbeer […] even Colbran will appear in it. A grand spectacle, an imposing picture’. [1]

Semiramide was the last opera that Rossini wrote for the Italian stage, before he upped sticks for Paris. Richard Osborne describes Rossini’s opera as ‘the apotheosis of the Italian neoclassical style and a consummate example of music's ability to map sensation for sensation's sake … destined to hold the stage for as long as there were singers to sing it.’

Opera Rara certainly has indeed found the ‘singers to sing it’, and we heard them first at the BBC Proms in 2016 , a performance of Semiramide which was, for me, one of the ‘stand-out moments’ of that Proms season. Now, Rossini’s opera has become the first recording to be distributed for Opera Rara by Warner Classics, a partnership which was announced in July this year. Warner Classics have assumed worldwide distribution for Opera Rara recordings and this includes all future recordings as well as Opera Rara’s recent, awarding winning releases - including International Opera Award-winning recordings of Offenbach’s Fantasio and Donizetti’s Les Martyrs .

Semiramide is no conventional seria ‘heroine’: rather a megalomaniac murderer who has assassinated her husband, with the help of her admirer Assure, in order that she can grab the throne of Babylon for herself. However, as Shakespeare’s Gertrude found, mariticide never does run smoothly, and her path to the crown is complicated by her passion for Arsace - who, unbeknown to them both, is her son.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Semiramide had largely disappeared from the stage. When the opera was given its first modern performances on 17th December 1962 at La Scala, it was largely as a vehicle suited to the talents of Joan Sutherland and Giulietta Simionato. It’s a long listen, even by the standards of the early-nineteenth century: without cuts, it runs to roughly three hours and forty-five minutes.

So, who would or should buy this box-set, which includes the libretto in Italian and English, and a detailed, informative, illustrated liner article by Benjamin Walton, alongside four discs comprising nearly four hours of music?

First, anyone who wants to hear terrific bel canto singing by a cast who appreciate that the beauty of the style is the symbiosis of expressive vocalism and dramatic vitality. As the eponymous Queen, Albina Shagimuratova demonstrates far more control over her technique than Semiramide does over her passions, but her effortless coloratura is far from colourless. The Act 1 showpiece, ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’, in which - her spirits lifted by the chirpy woodwind and buoyant chorus of the aria-preface - Semiramide rejoices in the return to Babylon of Arsace, shines with ripples of rapture. The virtuosity dazzles - the shimmering string tremolandos seem to flow from her vocal frissons - but is also affecting. The rhythms are unfailingly vivacious, the phrasing heart-stirring. Sir Mark Elder whips up an instrumental and choral revel which Shagimuratova rides with gleaming glory. The complex, long throne scene that ends the Act is expertly shaped by Elder, and the soprano paces the scene and articulates the text superbly: I can almost believe in her avowal of devotion and service to her people, so thrillingly does she crest the vocal waves with fullness of tone and depth of feeling. Then, we feel the claws of fear - her blood curdles, she cannot breathe - that grip her when her dead husband seems to rise from his tomb: the pounding, accusatory thumps of the orchestra inspire more terror than any director is likely to conjure on stage.

Daniela Barcellona is a sincere Arsace. In her presentation aria, ‘Eccomi alfine in Babilonia’, we sense every ounce of the veneration which infuses Arsace’s soul upon his return to Babylon, believing that his dying ‘father’, Fradate, has sent him there to answer a call from Semiramide, while his heart burns with passion for Azema. His awe is evoked by momentous silences which are emphasised by playing of tremendous clarity by the woodwind and by the violas’ insistent ostinato flutterings, though the strings’ ascending pizzicato and a nasally riposte from the woodwind sound a note of danger. Arsace’s homage to the temple of Baal descends with resonating reverence, Barcellona demonstrating both textual awareness and vocal precision. Her voice overflows with love, and memories of feelings love inspires, in the following cavatina, ‘Ah! quel giorno’: here, the dark colours of her mezzo shine with paradoxical brilliance. Elder keeps things moving along, while giving space for Barcellona to relish the text, to make velvety flights through her melodic range and to demonstrate her command of the coloratura. The latter is also evident in ‘In si barbara sciagura’, in which the vibrant orchestral contribution never ‘accompanies’ but always heightens and complements.

And, in duet, Shagimuratova and Barcellona complement each other wonderfully. In Act 1, when the Queen confesses her love, Shagimuratova’s soprano has a lovely ‘cleanness’ that belies her murderous previous actions, though perhaps the beautiful curlicues and outbursts don’t entirely deceive us even if Arsace duped, submitting to images of peace and joy. Barcellona’s runs and roulades slip by like silk but leave the impression of the plushness of velvet: bel canto at its very best.

Mirco Palazzi’s smooth bass makes him a deceptively spiteful Assur. In his Act 2 duet with Semiramide, in which her guilt leads her to blame and reject her accomplice-assassin, Palazzi’s agile bass resonates with lithe indignation and a piercing resentment founded on truth, ‘Remember … who drove me to treachery’. His threat to rob of her of both her sanity and her throne descends to menacingly purposeful depths, but Assur’s warning that the Queen should fear the shade cast by her husband’s hovering shadow rings purely and with a beguiling warmth and directness which is undoubtedly disturbing, and which makes Palazzi’s subsequent extended descent into insanity even more distressing.

Alongside the central principals, Barry Banks sails through Idreno’s vocal flights with ease, and his Act 2 courtship of Azema, ‘La speranza più soave’, is beautifully shaped, shuddering with passion. The minor roles of Azema, Mitrade, and the high priest Oreo, are stylishly taken by Susana Gaspar, David Philip Butt and Gianluca Buratto respectively. Embedded in the Royal Albert Hall Arena, James Platt cut a disturbing white-suited ‘Ghost of King Nino’, but deprived of the visual context Platt still makes a cavernous impression.

Semiramide gives us Babylonian myth by way of Voltaire, with a dash of Hamlet and Oedipus; the joy of a recording, over a staging, is that we don’t really have to ‘make sense’ of the characters … they can be histrionic and hyperbolic and still sound wonderful. Elder’s ability to craft extended sequences of tension is second to none, and he is ably abetted by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The first forty bars of the Sinfonia give us a wonderful taste of what is to come: there are urgent palpitations from the lower strings, from which bursts an explosion of colour. Release follows in the form of the relaxed blend of horns and bassoon, before a flash of fire consumes us with the entry of the full orchestra. The flames are assuaged by the woodwind but dancing pizzicato dialogues in the strings keep the embers smoking. It’s hard to believe that just a few minutes have passed, so many emotions have we traversed. And, as we proceed the musical landscape is never settled emotionally, but always perfectly structured and executed. Detail and diversity serve the drama, to an effect which is both immediate and slow-burning.

So, to return to my earlier question, who should buy this Opera Rara recording? Lovers of Rossini, of beautiful and dramatic singing, but also those interested in history and legend - mythic, operatic or otherwise.

2019 will see the release of Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida, which received its world premiere at the Royal Opera House under Sir Mark’s baton, in July this year. Before that, on 21st November, Opera Rara will present the original version of Puccini’s one-act Le Villi , the composer’s first stage work, at the Royal Festival Hall; this performance will unite Ermonela Jaho - the star of Opera Rara’s first foray into verismo territory, Leoncavallo’s Zazà - with American baritone, Brian Mulligan, and the young Armenian tenor, Arsen Soghomonyan. Le Villi will subsequently be recorded for release by Warner Classics.

Claire Seymour

Rossini: La Semiramide (recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, August/September 2016)

Albina Shagimuratova (Semiramide), Daniela Barcellona (Arsace), Mirco Palazzi (Assur), Barry Banks (Idreno), Gianluca Buratto (Oroe), Susana Gaspar (Azema), David Butt Philip (Mitrane), James Platt (L’ombra di Nino); Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus.

Opera Rara, ORC57 [4 CDs: 66:48, 65:18, 63:16, 36:21]


[1] Cited in Richard Osborne, Rossini: His Life and Works (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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