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Rossini's 'Semiramide' in Concert

available at Amazon
Rossini, Semiramide (complete), A. Penda, M. Pizzolato, Virtuosi Brunensis, A. Fogliani
(Naxos, 2013)
(released on October 23, 2015)
Paraty 135205 | 68'02"
Semiramis probably never existed. "Empress over many tongues," as Dante called her, she was Queen of Babylon, often associated with the story of the Tower of Babel. Dante condemned her to the Circle of the Lustful in Inferno because of her many sexual escapades, even supposedly with her own son. Upset by society's disapproval of her proclivities, Semiramis took advantage of her position as ruler, having succeeded her husband on the throne, and simply changed the laws of the state to make what she did legal. "She was so given to the vice of lechery," Dante wrote in Inferno, Canto V, in the translation by Prof. Robert Hollander, "she made lust licit in her law / to take away the blame she had incurred."

Semiramide, Rossini's last Italian opera before moving to Paris, rarely sees the stage today, long after its premiere at La Fenice in 1823. It is a perfect option for Washington Concert Opera, which regularly brings top-notch performances of operas you will likely never hear anywhere else in Washington. The score has some gorgeous music, but the libretto, by Gaetano Rossi after a play by Voltaire, is a dud. Spanning three and a half hours when it is complete, the opera requires some cuts, but this performance excised only about fifteen minutes of music. Without some magnificent sets and costumes to distract the eye, it made for a long but mostly enjoyable evening in the theater.

Australian soprano Jessica Pratt was outstanding in the title role, with broad power at the top to carry over the full textures, a shimmering high pianissimo, and excellent agility in the melismatic passages. She was regal in vocal presence, the only reservation being a low range that did not really carry. Sadly, she was not matched well with mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who has always impressed in Baroque opera recordings but not so much in 19th-century opera when a large hall has to be filled with sound. Genaux brilliantly handled the fioriture as Arsace, whom Semiramide wishes to take as her lover before discovering he is her long-lost son, but the voice just did not have enough heft, requiring conductor Antony Walker to rein in his orchestra whenever she sang.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Stars dimmer than expected in the concert Rossini opera ‘Semiramide’ (Washington Post, November 24)

David Rohde, ‘Semiramide’ with Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 23)
Tenor Taylor Stayton made a fine Idreno, the man who wants to marry Azema, the woman Arsace loves, with a heroic squillo that was just nasal enough to have clarion force. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges had plenty of braying sound as Assur, the man who helped Semiramide poison her husband, but often seemed to hit only every other note when his part went into florid runs. Evan Hughes made a blustery Oroe, the Babylonian high priest, and in the supporting cast, Wei Wu and Natalie Conte had pleasing turns as the ghost of Semiramide's husband and Azema, respectively.

The orchestra and chorus both sounded under-rehearsed and maybe under-staffed, in the case of the chorus, where a seemingly smaller number of singers were not as sure as they could have been. The four horns, which feature in the final scene of Act I, when Semiramide announces that she will marry Arsace, and in the overture, were on the money, but the string sound was often ragged. Too many early entrances (timpani, trumpet) and flubbed notes contributed to the sense of general confusion, in spite of Walker's best attempts to wade through all that music at the podium.

Hopefully, things will be in better shape for the second performance of Washington Concert Opera, featuring Donizetti's La Favorite, starring Ionarts favorite Kate Lindsey (March 4, 2016).


Anonymous said...

Often times it is easier to write the obvious than to actually delve into the essence of what one has experienced. To point out a missed entrance and neglect to mention the rhythmic accuracy and pristine intonation of trumpets and timpani is akin to focusing on the one blemish of an otherwise beautiful face. It takes years to perfect the combination of words that give a writer style and validation. If I were to review this reviewer, I'd give him mediocre marks for missing the point entirely. If you want perfection, go to the Met and pay hundreds of dollars to hear opera that has been well-rehearsed and is usually performed without errors. On the other hand, if you want to pay a fraction of the cost to hear passionate and energetic interpretations of rarely performed works performed by local musicians who are under rehearsed due to budget constraints, then come with your ears and heart open for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anonymous, if you would like to speak to me, on or off the record, about the cuts in rehearsal time at WCO, I am all ears. E-mail me for my cell phone number if you don't want to put anything in writing.