United Kingdom Prom 68 – Rossini, Semiramide: Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9.2016. (CC)
Semiramide – Albina Shagimuratova
Arsace – Daniela Barcellona
Assur – Mirco Palazzi
Idreno – Barry Banks
Oroe – Gianluca Buratto
Azema – Susana Gaspar
Mitrane – David Butt Philip
Nino’s Ghost – James Platt
Sir Mark Elder returned to the rostrum after his Hallé prom earlier in the season for this revelatory performance of Rossini’s ‘tragic melodrama’ after Voltaire’s Sémeramis. Although not heard absolutely complete, this performance still lasted just a smidgeon under four hours. One wonders if a Sunday finishing time was partly responsible for the cuts, while hoping the Opera Rara recording (now in the bag) includes absolutely everything. The vocal writing places huge demands on the singers, and all credit should go to the cast on display here; not least given the cancellations. Both Ildebrando D’Archangelo and Levy Strauss Segkapane withdrew as Assur and Idreno respectively, hence the substitution of Mirco Palazzi and Barry Banks.
Sir Mark Elder is clearly passionate about this score, contributing an introductory essay underlining its stature as a ‘truly bel canto’ opera, the importance of its recitatives, the transparency of the OAE sound in this repertoire (he was certainly right about that one), and pointing out that the famous Sutherland/Horne recording is now a half-century old and that it was time for a fresh perspective. He even contributed several paragraphs on the timpani part, explaining why there were on stage three pairs of Rossini-period drums (enabling them to match the timpani to the prevailing harmonies more snugly).
The long and fairly complex story obviously centres around the titular heroine, Semiramide. We need to know that 15 years prior to the opera’s opening, Queen Semiramide of Babylon and her lover, Prince Assur, killed King Nino, plotting also to murder the child Ninia – the child, however, survived. Things get complicated in the relationship between Semiramide and Arsace, who is actually her vengeful long-lost son. In other news, the hand of Princess Azema (who is actually the reason Arsace returns to Babylon) is sought both by Prince Assur and by Idreno, King of Indus. There’s a mad scene (for Assur) and tragedy as Semiramide is killed by Arsace in a darkened tomb.
Opera lovers will almost certainly be familiar with the Overture and probably Semiramide’s ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’, but possibly little else. Elder, in an interview in the booklet, reveals that the challenge lies in the opera’s architecture. The standard of inspiration is pretty consistently high throughout, so it is a case of how to ‘keep everything going’ (his words, not mine) during this ‘terrifically long piece’. The result was magnificently satisfying in the end.
The title role was taken by Albina Shagimuratova, who had taken the role of Queen of the Night in Zauberflöte at Covent Garden in 2013 (see my review). That had been a little shaky, but here she was in fine fettle, confident and often radiant of voice. Her vocal tone has a most affecting glint of silver to it. One of the opera’s highlights in this performance was her Act 1 Duettino, ‘Serbami ognor sì fido’ with the Arsace of Daniella Barcellona, although ‘Bel raggio’ was her solo highlight. She hit full regality in the Act One finale at ‘I vostri voti omai’ (wherein the horns from the overture reappear, magically).
One of the bigger names in the cast, Daniela Barcellona began rather shakily in her recitative and cavatina, ‘Eccomi alfine in Babilonia … Ah! Quell giorno ognor rammento’, perhaps surprisingly taking a while to warm in. (The aria itself is supremely beautiful, culminating in virtuoso fireworks allied to a Rossini crescendo.) Mirco Palazzi as Assur had authority and a very strong voice but was, even in a non-staged performance, afflicted by stilted gesture. I say with love and affection that maybe it would be best to cut his left arm off, or at least bandage it to his body (I’m also using a touch of humour, just to head off those that think I mean this literally). He certainly had the volume to match Shagimuratova in Act 2, but it is subtlety that would have made his performance better in the final analysis.
The role of Mitrane was well taken by resonantly-voiced tenor David Butt Philip, who took the part of Grigory Otrepiev in Prom 2’s Boris Godunov, while James Platt, amplified, was a convincing ghost of Nino, the role sung from a platform in the arena. Gianluca Buratto was a full-toned and authoritative Oroe, the priest who kicks the whole thing off (‘Si, gran Nume, t’intesi’), while Barry Banks’ Idreno was best in its most lyrical passages – his Act 2 ‘La speranza più soave’ being a case in point. Susana Gaspar made the most of the small role of Azema.
The chorus was phenomenal. Throughout, Mark Elder found wonderful shadings and subtlety in the scoring – the woodwind writing during the Act One duettino between Semiramide and Arsace, ‘Serbami ognor si fido’ was utter delight. The bright sound he found from the orchestra in the Act One finale brought a true sense of climax, but throughout there was myriad colours. How lovingly, for example, he shaped the Trio between Semiramide, Arsace and Assur in the second Act ‘L’usato ardir’. This was masterly conducting of what appeared, as we listened, a Rossini masterpiece.