Monday, March 12, 2018

Met Opera: Rossini's Semiramide

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Rossini's rarely performed Semiramide, the final work he composed in Italy.  He was then at the peak of his career and idolized throughout Europe.  After a successful sojourn in London where he received the equivalent of over half a million dollars for five months residence, Rossini accepted a lucrative offer to become Musical Director of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, and it was there that he composed the final operas of his abbreviated career.

Like Tancredi, one of Rossini's earliest successes, Semiramide was based on a tragedy by Voltaire, the eighteenth century Enlightenment author who displayed a positive flair for melodrama in such works as Semiramis and Candide.  Also like TancrediSemiramide had a libretto written by the highly prolific Gaetano Rossi.  None of this made the convoluted plot, one that can only be termed "historical" in the loosest sense, any less incomprehensible.  By the middle of the first act, I'd given up trying to follow the action onstage.  Better to sit back and simply enjoy the wonderful singing.   

Whatever the merits of the story, Semiramide contains some of Rossini's finest music.  When writing the arias for Semiramide, the composer returned to an earlier style than that which he had employed in the majority of his Neapolitan operas.  As the Met's program notes point out:
"Aside from the expansive first scene and the two finales - which are of truly massive proportions - Semiramide is built around six arias and four duets. The arias are all of the older style, beginning with a slow cantabile section and ending with a fast cabaletta, specifically designed to show off the singer’s voice and technique."
The change in Rossini's style was influenced by his mistress, soprano Isabella Colbran, who sang the title role in the original production.  It was also Ms. Colbran who had urged Rossini to move away from the comic operas that had made him famous and to take up more serious subjects better suited to her acting style.  In retrospect, opera lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Colbran for the pressure she exerted on the composer.  She must have been an magnificent singer in her own right.  No better testament exists to the quality of her voice than the incredibly difficult Act I aria Bel raggio lusinghier.

Saturday afternoon's performance featured an excellent cast, one of the best to appear in any Met production this season, all of them fully up to the demands placed on them by Rossini's music.  Angela Meade, in the title role, showed absolute mastery of her material as well as a great deal of endurance over the course of two very long acts.  She was ably supported on Saturday afternoon by Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur, and Ryan Speedo Green as Oroe.  Javier Camarena was so good as Idreno that one wished the character had been given a larger role.  Maurizio Benini conducted.

The 1990 production by John Copley was excellent in every respect, handsome without being ostentatious, and fluid enough that no long pauses were required between scenes.  Gratitude is certainly due any producer who shows restraint in designing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There's a shocking backstory to the production in Copley's Wikipedia biography:
"During choir rehearsals for a revival of Copley's 1990 production of Rossini's Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Copley coached the singers to show reactions to the appearance of Nino's ghost at the end of act 1. He suggested that he would 'imagine the character naked' which prompted a complaint from a chorister. The Met's manager Peter Gelb then fired Copley, citing a different account of the complaint. Gelb's action has been described as a 'witch hunt' and been widely criticised by other cast members, opera singers and managers."
It should be noted that such scandal, even if as egregious as claimed by Mr. Gelb, did not stop the UK from appointing Copley Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2014.

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