Rossini Semiramide, Metropolitan Opera relay encore Cameo cinema, Edinburgh
***** 5 Stars
More monumental Met magnificence for an opera that begins with regicide, ends in matricide, and passes through incipient incest and male chauvinism, arrogance, bullying, blame and sexual harassment on the way… Mix in a healthy dose of Wrath of the Gods, and you have the plot of Semiramide.
The eponymous heroine has ascended to the throne of Babylonia by murdering her husband, Nino, with the assistance of her lover Assur. Fifteen years later she is being pressured into naming a new king. Assur believes it should be him, but Semiramide names the successful general Arsace, who will also become her husband. Arsace is in love with Azema; Assur thinks he is the more worthy candidate; and Azema, who loves Arsace, is handed over to the Indian prince Idreno who keeps professing his ardent love for her and doesn’t seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm. Watching all this, with mounting horror, is the High Priest Oroe, who is the only person who knows that Arsace is in fact Semiramide’s son Ninia, who is believed to be dead. It takes the intervention of the god Baal and a personal appearance of Nino’s ghost to get things sorted out: Semiramide dies, Assur is led away to punishment, Arsace gets the girl, Idreno is left empty-handed, and the joyful populace acclaim the horrified matricide king.
The Met last mounted this opera 25 years ago. There are few singers who can cope with the demands of the score, but the Met has assembled a stellar cast who transcend the complexities of Rossini’s music. Azema sings very little, very sweetly, and listens submissively to male posturing while being handed around like a piece of luggage, a messenger announces something very early on, and the Ghost of Nino are all unaccredited in the Met publicity but make the most of their limited material. High Priest Oroe [Ryan Speedo Green] has a gorgeous bass voice and ably conveys the internal struggle that comes from knowing the truth hidden from everyone else. Idreno [Javier Camarena] is a magnificent Rossini tenor, pinging out incredibly high notes with aplomb, and completely unable to understand why Azema doesn’t instantly fall at his feet as he proclaims his devotion. Assur [baritone Ildar Abdrazakov] is impressive both physically and vocally, a bully when he thinks he is winning and a coward when he encounters Nino’s ghost, who reminds him of his guilty past: he is also very quick to put the blame on Semiramide when they confront each other with the crime!
Arsace [Elizabeth Deshong] pours out an amazing stream of fluid, flexible mezzo sound while coping with ridiculous headgear [pepperpots surmounted by waving plumes] and has one moment of happiness early on as ‘he’ recalls his first meeting with Azema, when he rescued her from her abductor. He spends most of the rest of the opera in a state of horror – losing Azema in marrying Semiramide, realising his newly-found mother murdered his father, accidentally killing her instead of Assur, and being crowned when his heart is bursting with grief. Semiramide herself [Angela Meade, reminding me irresistibly of a supersize version of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara] is queen of the evening, her dazzling technique carrying her through the demanding vocal line as her creamy, passionate soprano soars over cast and orchestra, her commanding presence ignoring her unflattering skirts.
Each voice was magnificent on its own, but what makes this opera really stunning is their combination in duets and ensembles: Assur and Arsace’s jealous rivalry for the love of Azema; the confused encounter of unknowing mother and son, who both misunderstand the object of the love each professes; Assur and Semiramide’s fear and mutual recriminations as they recall the murder; Oroe and Arsace’s sharing the horrific discovery of the regicide and Arsace’s true identity; the massive conclusion of the first act, and the trio of fear as Assur, Arsace and Semiramide wait in the darkness of Nino’s tomb.
The set consisted of giant pillars and sloping stairs – a massive backdrop displaying the might and splendour of the Babylonian court, but very restricting of movement: the chorus could only file on and stand still, while the principals were hampered both by the set and their gloriously glittering robes as they played out their internal struggles on this gigantic stage.
It was a joy to have nothing but the music in the overtures and entr’actes – no distracting byplay up on stage – so we could focus on the individual instrumentalists and conductor Maurizio Benini, who kept the energy fizzing throughout the performance. The Rossini crescendo worked its magic and the cast and conductor were given a standing ovation, celebrating the triumphant achievement of this rarely-seen work,
Relay performance, run may continue in London’s Royal Opera House.
review by Mary Woodward