By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be viewed at www.metopera.org.
Tuesday, June 16
Rossini’s Semiramide ~ 3 Hrs 22 Mins
Conducted by Maurizio Benini, starring Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, Ildar Abdrazakov, and Ryan Speedo Green. Transmitted live on March 10, 2018.
The final jewel in Rossini’s bel-canto crown, Semiramide requires four virtuosic singers—soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass—for a display of vocalism that can be as spectacular as the story line is convoluted. Musicologist Rodolfo Celletti has summed up the importance of Semiramide by saying: “(It) was the last opera of the great Baroque tradition: the most beautiful, the most imaginative, possibly the most complete; but also, irremediably, the last.” It returned to the Met for the first time in nearly 25 years during the 2017–18 season.
Based on an original tragedy by Voltaire, it is set in ancient Babylon under the reign of the mythic Queen Semiramis of Assyria, and features a story full of political scheming, mistaken identity, love, jealousy, revenge, a ghost and divine intervention — not to mention one virtuosic vocal display after another. Soprano Angela Meade (Falstaff and Ernani so far) is the queen of the title, whose quest for love and power is unexpectedly stymied by the discovery that the current object of her affection, the young warrior Arsace (sung by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong) is actually her long-lost son. Bel canto specialist Maurizio Benini takes the podium to lead a cast that also stars talented bel canto tenor Javier Camarena as the ardent prince Idreno, bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Anna Bolena and Prince Igor) as Assur, the scheming, rejected former lover of the queen, and bass Ryan Speedo Green (Aida) as the ever present high priest Oroe.
As this particularly campy production begins, the high priest Oroe welcomes the assembled crowd to the great Temple of Baal. They are there to pay homage to the deity, including Idreno, a visiting foreign dignitary and Indian prince who is in love with Azema, a princess of Baal. Assur, a prince of Baal, brings special offerings to the God in the hope that Queen Semiramide will finally choose him as successor to her late husband, King Nino (after all, it was he who long ago murdered the king with Semiramide’s help and they are still having a secret affair which has lasted many years). Idreno expresses surprise at Assur’s aspirations, and all express their individual concerns and fears about Semiramide and the succession.
Semiramide enters to everyone’s acclaim, but she is feeling uncomfortable about being pressured to finally choose a king. It appears she is expecting someone else to arrive. There is a sudden flash of lightning, the sacred altar flame goes out and the temple is plunged into darkness. Believing it to be a bad omen, Oroe warns that the succession announcement ceremony should not proceed, and everyone deserts the temple.
Arsace, who is a commander of the Assyrian troops, enters. He has been summoned to Babylon by Semiramide, as well as asked by his dying father to deliver a casket containing old documents and relics to the priest, Oroe. When Assur appears, Arsace confides in him that he is going to ask Semiramide for Azema’s hand as they have been in love since Arsace saved her from barbarians.
So, once again, you can see that we have the makings of a Byzantine tangle of love triangles to learn about – and finally get sorted out – and lots of beautiful arias, duets and trios to hear along the way, especially in Act I, Scene 3, in the renowned Hanging Gardens of Babylon where Semiramide sings the famous, “Bel raggio lusinghier” (beautiful ray of hope and pleasure).
Very briefly, Arsace, Idreno and Assur (although he is still involved with Semiramide) all lust after Azema, who loves only Arsace, but who was long ago promised to Ninia, the missing son of the old king. At this point, Semiramide, herself, is in love with Arsace (think a small twist on the Oedipus theme) which is why she has sent for him and also why she has rejected Assur as the new king even though each of them could destroy the other if their secret murder of the old king was revealed. A hot mess as they say, and to make matters even worse, we soon find that Arsace, unbeknownst even to himself, is Ninia, the aforementioned missing crown prince and son of Semiramide.
So – to watch or not to watch – after all it is nearly three and a half hours long. I will tell you that I have seen Semiramide twice in last few years – this production at the Met, as well as one in Munich with Joyce DiDonato as Semiramide, Daniela Barcelona as Arsace and Lawrence Brownlee as Idreno. I far prefer the Munich cast and production. As much as I loved Angela Meade – and her voice – in Verdi’s Ernani, bel canto is not her forte (as it is DiDonato’s), she is far better with Verdi and she is mis-matched in this role. Beyond that, Camarena is a bel canto specialist, but it’s really hard to pass him off as a credible Indian prince when you make him – and the entire rest of the cast – look like something out of Disney’s Aladdin (see Photo 1- and there is also Ryan Speedo Green who looks like they had him re-use his Aida costume for this one). Then we have Photo 3. That is Semiramide with the man she supposedly loves and is about to make her King. While Photo 4 is Assur, the man she is rejecting – hmmmm. Sorry, but while I mostly agree with the Met’s favorite slogan “It’s the Voice,” – because that is what is truly moving, the very definition of “opera” is “the works” – meaning the voices, the music, the costumes, the scenery, the words, the story – the credibility of the whole – which must engage all your senses. If any of those elements misses the mark, the entire experienced is diminished. As always, you should make up your own mind — my tastes are not everyone’s. There certainly is much wonderful Rossini music to be enjoyed here — it’s just that this particular production was not my cup of tea.
1. Javier Camarena (left) as Idreno and Ryan Speedo Green (right) as Oroe in Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
2. Angela Meade (center) as Semiramide and Ryan Speedo Green (far right) as Oroe in Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
2. Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace and Angela Meade as Semiramide in Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
3. Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur and Angela Meade as Semiramide in Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.