The Met’s Semiramide Lacks Dramatic Tension Despite Some Beautiful Singing

11/03/2018

Rossini, Semiramide: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, New York / Maurizio Benini (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 10.3.2018. (JPr)

semi

Semiramide Act I (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera

Production:

Production – John Copley
Stage director – Roy Rallo
Set designer – John Conklin
Costume designer – Michael Stennett
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler

Live in HD Director – Barbara Willis Sweete
Live in HD Host – Christopher Maltman

Cast:

Semiramide – Angela Meade
Arsace – Elizabeth DeShong
Idreno – Javier Camarena
Assur – Ildar Abdrazakov
Oroe – Ryan Speedo Green
Azema – Sarah Shafer
Nino’s Ghost – Jeremy Galyon

When this 1823 opera seria by Rossini returned to Covent Garden after 130 years I wrote about Semiramide (review click here) that it ‘is not actually something you should go to for any dramatic action, but for its – to be anticipated – bel canto glories. The story concerns the eponymous Babylonian encouraging a lover to poison her husband and then unwittingly select her own son – who ran away as an infant – as her consort and the new king. Semiramide is the lovechild of someone from Shakespeare – think Hamlet, Gertrude and Lady Macbeth – and a Greek mythological character, such as Oedipus, Jocasta or Clytemnestra. Gaetano Rossi’s libretto is based on Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis, which in turn was inspired by the legend of Semiramis of Assyria.’ The ‘lover’ is Assur (a prince), the ‘son’ is Arsace (commander of the Assyrian army), the ‘husband’ Nino (who appears as an apparition) and a small cast of principals is completed by an Indian king (Idreno), Azema (a princess) and Oroe (a high priest). Assur has set his sights on the throne, as well as, Azema who Arsace also declares he loves. Soon Arsace will discover that Semiramide and Assur conspired to kill Nino, and – since he knows by now he is the king’s son – vows to avenge his death. These CliffsNotes are all you really need about the opera for its return to the Met stage after 25 years.

It is a fairly simple story that ‘unfolded’ over 3½ hours of music at Covent Garden – despite the small cuts of the Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda critical edition – yet at the Met they lost a further 30 minutes, but it still seemed too long. The Met has apparently had trouble finding an audience for even its short run of eight performances and it was a strange choice for a Live in HD transmission. Strongly reminding me of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, John Conklin’s monumental set changed very little over two acts despite all the blackouts, moving panels and curtain drops. With the singers rarely interacting and often singing their (almost literally) showstopping pieces as far apart on the stage – and as close to the prompt box as possible – everything lacked any real emotion or true drama and altogether this caused the music to stop-start too much. The chorus just shuffled on and walked off again, and with the excessive amount of old-school ‘park and bark’ we saw, it was as if the changes in opera over the 25 years since Semiramide was last seen at the Met had never happened. The original director, John Copley, somewhat controversially had to leave this revival during the rehearsal period, whether this made much difference to what we saw from revival stage director Roy Rallo I had my doubts. Didn’t anyone else think the baring of chests and skimpy leather-looking uniforms for Assur and some of the other soldiers, as well as all the gaudy costume jewellery on show for both sexes, seemed faintly out-of-step with our 2018 theatrical sensibilities?

As a result of all this – and the limited acting abilities of most of the principals – it was like a semi-staged concert performance, albeit in extravagant costumes. Nothing will explain this better than the final trio between Semiramide, Assur and Arsace when – I hope I am not giving too much away – the latter accidentally kills his mother in Nino’s supposedly dark tomb. Nobody is supposed to see anyone, yet we could everyone absolutely clearly. They just stand around until Arsace has the urge to stab Assur though instead murders Semiramide who moves in front of him. As staged, it looks as if Arsace acts deliberately and this contradicts the intentions of the characters.

Admittedly if I had my eyes shut I might have surrendered more completely to the beautiful singing (bel canto) and the rest of Rossini’s score, however, it was difficult to entirely shut out the – almost total – lack of drama in the static production. At Covent Garden JoyceDiDonato, Daniela Barcellona and Lawrence Brownlee, amongst others, showed how to bring their characters to life. The Met’s cast were more provincial (sorry!) by comparison. Apart from Sarah Shafer’s appealingly Azema no one else was really a natural performer. They were all great technicians but not necessarily great artists. You could see on their faces the Olympian effort their roles required regardless of how ‘beautiful’ the sounds they produced were as heard through the cinema loudspeakers. Being one step removed does make judging this part of their performances trickier. Despite showing great vocal stamina I was not certain Angela Meade was ever entirely comfortable as Semiramide, though Elizabeth DeShong was an impassioned Arsace and had all the notes and coloratura her role required, yet when singing together they made for an odd-looking couple. Javier Camarena sang Idreno and pinged his high notes excellently. In a backstage interview he equated this to hitting a bullseye, yet I wonder whether it was Rossini or Camarena who was responsible for some of these and possibly some other embellishments of his vocal lines. (These thoughts extended as well to some of his colleagues on stage.) Ildar Abdrazakov was physically imposing but one dimensional in both his dark bass sound, emoting, and gesticulating. Ryan Speedo Green’s booming bass sounded mightily impressive though there was an opportunity missed to impose himself on what action there was and show us all he was truly the high priest.

Some of the cuts affected the chorus though they sang out lustily as usual and from what I could gather the orchestra played well enough. Maurizio Benini’s tempi seemed either speeded up to allow singers to get through their notes as quick as possible or slowed down to support them through more challenging passages. The excisions from the score, as well as the ‘stop-start’ staging, eliminated any possibility of dramatic tension which should be possible even in a serious Rossini opera and there were musical longueurs.

Not a memorable outing I am sad to report though it held that certain fascination of visiting some famous ancient relics. Something I probably need to do once but never again.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what The Met: Live in HD has to offer for the remainder of this season and in 2018-19 click here and go to a cinema near you.

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Comments

Comments

  1. david alden says:

    I directed the recent Bavarian State Opera/Royal Opera House Semiramide. May I state again, for the record: there is no aria for Azema to cut. Rossini never wrote an aria for her. She is loved by all the males in the libretto and discussed incessantly, but she has only a few scattered lines of recitative. Rather bad dramaturgy, but as the playing time of the opera already approaches 4 hours somewhat understandable…

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      In days of yore – and in a previous Wagner-related incarnation of mine – I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with you. Thank you so much for this and you should indeed know! I pride myself on my research – if not on much else! – and I thought I previously saw references to an Azema aria but accept these themselves might have been incorrect. Until told otherwise I have made my own excision and removed this from the review.

  2. Anna says:

    I also found too few moving on stage and interaction between one another. But regarding the immobility I think this had to do with the very, very difficult score the singers had to face. This score requires so much accuracy – in my opinion they HAVE to have the opportunity to look at the conductor which is not possible when interacting or standing too far away from the pit.

    And as music and art in general is always a thing of taste: my friend and I found Sarah Shafer’s Azema the most boring character on stage: “pale” and unobtrusive. ;-)

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      Delighted to have feedback on S&H reviews so thank you for this … even if we must agree to disagree! I just saw Azema as the most ‘natural’ performer and I just prefer to see singers not so obviously needing to make such herculean efforts.

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