Regal Joyce DiDonato and Gifted Daniela Barcellona Triumph in Royal Opera’s Semiramide

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Semiramide: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 19.11.2017. (JPr)

Daniela Barcellona (Arsace) & Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) (c) Bill Cooper


Director – David Alden
Set designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume designer – Buki Shiff
Lighting designer – Michael Bauer
Choreographer – Beate Vollack


Semiramide – Joyce DiDonato
Assur – Michele Pertusi (Act I)/Mirco Palazzi (Act II)
Arsace – Daniela Barcellona
Idreno – Lawrence Brownlee
Azema – Jacquelyn Stucker
Oroe – Bálint Szabó
Mitrane – Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost – Simon Shibambu

The Royal Opera probably never intended to make a political statement when it decided to bring Rossini’s Semiramide back into its repertory after 130 years. Nevertheless, in the back of their minds they must have realised the possibilities afforded by a story set in what is modern-day Iraq about a murderous ruler who meets her comeuppance at the hands of one of her disillusioned subjects who – in this case – has recently discovered he is her son.

This opera seria by Gioachino Rossini 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 opera ends in this David Alden production as a repentant queen who accidentally has her throat slit when she intervenes between an angry erstwhile lover, Assur, and that son of hers, Arsace. (I think Alden was trying to make us think of the executions we sometime see from the Middle East on the news, but it did not work for me.)

Alden has updated the action (such as it is) to some East or Middle East totalitarian state where a single dictator dominates in the way the dead King Nino dominates the old Babylonia of the opera. However throughout we are repeatedly reminded of Kim Jong-un, a predecessor of his, Kim Il-sung – because of the gigantic statue we see – and Donald Trump. Stage designer Paul Steinberg seems to have been inspired by Islamic floral-patterned tiles and ceramic mosaics, together with, communist propaganda paintings and its architecture.

Alden’s production thankfully allows the principals to sing without undue hindrance, though from time to time he chooses to poke fun at the plot. It seems strange however that since Islam was satirized at Bayreuth – with the flower maidens in Parsifal wearing burqas – you now need to pass through an elaborate security barrier to get into the Festspielhaus. Here you can see Ayatollah-like fundamentalists shuffling around the floor of the stage and no one really ‘bats an eyelid’. Buki Shiff’s costumes are absolutely exquisite: Semiramide’s royal garb and her deep blue nightdress, as well as, Princess Azema’s golden sheath with its long wing-like sleeves that she frequently flaps, are truly eye-catching. Azema who is coveted by both Assur and Arsace is treated almost like a treasured possession and looks Egyptian; part-Isis, part-mummy. Actually, she is given by Semiramide to Idreno, a turbaned Indian King, who eventually carries her away. It is that sort of story if you can be bothered with it. Whether this says much about autocratic rule or the actual characters in the story will depend – I repeat – on whether you have gone to see Semiramide for the music or the drama.

There are still about 3½ hours of music despite the minimal cuts of the Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda critical edition. Much of it is still repetitious and would seem as artificially drawn out as the endless Brexit negotiations were it not for so much inspired melodic invention that plumbs emotional depths and quite often requires awe-inspiring coloratura technique. After a lowkey account of a somewhat flaccid – though typically Rossinian – stop-start Overture, Antonio Pappano settled down to draw a compact, well-structured performance from his virtuosic orchestra. They do little more than just accompany the singers and the fine chorus, but significantly, Pappano – in his usual fashion – breathes with them to give them the support so necessary in this type of music. Odd blips of coordination between pit and stage will undoubtedly be rectified during future performances.

Not that there wasn’t much to admire both before and after the opening scene of Act II, but it proved to be the genuine centre of the performance as a whole. Taking place in Semiramide’s bedroom rather than a hall in the palace an important extended duet ‘Se la vita ancor t’è cara’ sees her and Assur shaken back and forth between passion and guilt. Verdi’s Macbeth is not far away. It was significant for the singing of Mirco Palazzi who replaced the ailing Michele Pertusi as Assur at the interval. After – unsurprisingly – a somewhat restrained start Palazzi gained strength, and this was a most significant Royal Opera debut.

Joyce DiDonato’s tremendous talent is virtually unequalled in today’s opera world; she brings to the stage the allure of a true diva without – it seems – any of the usual ‘baggage’ we would customarily expect. Given her magnificent performance as Semiramide – and previously as Adalgisa in Norma (review click here) – I am surprised to see her still called a mezzo-soprano. You can hear many famous sopranos with much darker voices and less secure top notes than she has. She is also one of the best actors amongst the current crop of ‘star’ opera singers and whilst her bearing was suitably regal throughout, this Semiramide was also undeniably human. DiDonato was emotionally engaged in the queen’s plight and I found myself holding my breath during her brilliant coloratura …though she clearly wasn’t! Her Act I ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ was a masterclass and the long role seemed to have little effect on the excellence of her singing.

DiDonato was partnered by the equally gifted Daniela Barcellona as Arsace, a trouser-role no shorter or any less challenging than Semiramide. Barcellona’s mastery was evident from her first entrance with ‘Eccomi alfine in Babilonia’. Whether in solo aria, duet, ensemble, cabaletta or recitative, both DiDonato and Barcellona displayed their formidable technique and astonishing musicianship. Lawrence Brownlee – is another of the world’s best voices in this repertoire – with his refined tenor he was an exemplary Idreno, Bálint Szabó brought considerable gravitas to his priestly Oroe and Jacquelyn Stucker as Azema did her very best to overcome that outrageously lovely costume she had to waddle around in. She was one of a trio of Jette Parker Young Artists (with Konu Kim as Mitrane and Simon Shibambu as the Voice of Nino’s Ghost) not sounding overawed in any way by the company they were keeping.

Jim Pritchard

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