Semiramide at Caramoor

These folks must
warble to make all the racket worthwhile. The doubt about the proper number
involves the tenor, whose runs, divisions, ornaments, floating lines are equal
in difficulty to those of the soprano, the mezzo and the bass, but who is
incidental to the plot — remember the plot? As the opera contains nearly
four hours of music, it is rare to hear it unsnipped, and the tenor part
— two major double arias — is where most producers start

Semiramide is an opera with everything: spectacular solos, awesome
duets, intense ensembles, earthquakes, prophecies, ghosts, incest, insanity,
coronations, murder in the dark — well, almost everything: In deference
to Mesopotamian weather patterns, this is the rare Rossini opera without a
thunderstorm. At Caramoor we very nearly got one anyway — it was a dark
and stormy day. At intermission, I had to warn people to turn off their frogs.
Frogs can’t resist a cabaletta — in the right throat, cabalettas
sound like mating cries.

Sutherland and Horne used to make rather a vehicle-‡-deux of this piece
— the fraught Semiramide-Arsace relationship is the center of the drama
— but the basso villain, Assur, who sings big duets with each of them as
well as a coloratura mad scene, should be able to rattle away on their
level. Sadly, Samuel Ramey, the first bass in modern times up to
Sutherland-Horne bel canto speed, did not assume the role until after
Sutherland had renounced it, but he made a memorable antagonist for CaballÈ and
Anderson, when they were singing the title role, and Arsace belonged
to Horne well into the ’90s. Today, Rossini technique is more widely
studied — have the new crop of singers the chops, the musicality, the
endurance to bring this exotic piece to life? The man who would know, methinks,
is Will Crutchfield, and last week he led a very grand concert performance of
damn near the whole score in Philip Gossett’s critical edition, in the
Venetian theater at the Caramoor Summer Festival some forty miles north of New

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness,
perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never
made a major Technicolor picture of it. In Rome’s Capitoline Museum,
generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac,
hang seven tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her,
a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while
leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in
love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s death and her
succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her
armies to conquer Abyssinia or India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or
wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost
son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among
the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real
Samu-ramat was simply queen regent of Assyria for a few years), and it’s
a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such
semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Agamemnon
and Roland.

Semiramis.gifSemiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon
by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591-1666) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Voltaire, whose tragedies are only remembered now, if at all, as opera
libretti, wrote his Semiramis, Rossini’s source, on themes
purloined from Clytemnestra and Orestes: The queen has usurped the throne of
her poisoned husband. After a successful reign, she yields to popular demand
for a new king, choosing Arsace, a Scythian warrior far her junior — and
offering him her hand. Before the misalliance can take place, the ghost of
vengeful King Ninus interferes. It turns out Arsace is the long-lost Ninias,
Semiramis’s son — and that Ninus was murdered by his wife and her
then lover, Assur, prince and claimant to the throne. Complicating matters
slightly, Assur, Arsace and an intrusive Indian prince named Idreno (that
damned tenor) are all in love with Azema, a princess with surprisingly little
to sing. Arsace lunges for Assur in the dark, kills Semiramis instead, and in
this horrified state of mind is hailed by an exultant chorus as the king of
Babylon. Irony intended. (Running time, uncut: roughly four hours.)

Semiramide calls for a dramatic soprano of range and power as well
as endless breath control and virtuoso singing — stars like Patti and
Melba long kept the piece alive, but even they worked it best when there was a
spectacular mezzo as Arsace — a trouser role — to match them. Assur
is a coloratura bass, Idreno a coloratura tenor, and the High Priest, OroÎ,
too, has some choice warbling to do in ensembles. The chorus parts are by no
means negligible — Crutchfield’s forces were small but elegantly
persuasive — and the orchestra is, for Italy in 1823, sizable and
virtuosic. The overture is the best-known piece in the score, Rossini’s
most elaborate treatment of themes from an opera as prelude and character
portrait to date, only surpassed six years later in his last opera, William
. On the present occasion, heavy humidity did not some damage to
timbre, the drums often out of balance or tune, the lyrical explosions of horn,
bassoon, clarinet in generally decent form.

But you want to know about the singing of the four stars, don’t you?
In fact, that’s the only thing you want to hear about, eh? Okay,
here’s the report: Sutherland, Horne and Ramey they weren’t. But
today they don’t need to be to put the opera over, and there were long
stretches of delirious, generally excellent vocalism. They were cool at their
work, and even showed signs of knowing what characters and situations they were
playing. Everyone knew what Rossini was about, and was eager to show off what
they knew. A lot of why we come to bel canto is to hear people show
off, and they had all assimilated that. The only thing I seriously missed in
the barrage of rapid-fire passagework from all hands was a genuine musical
trill — there was no such thing all night, from anyone, which
disappointed those who learned this score from the Sutherland-Horne recordings.
Bel canto singers used to focus on their trills; perhaps they no
longer bother.

semiramide2.gifSemiramide costruisce Babilonia by Edgar Degas [Museo d’Orsay]

Angela Meade is a young so-called dramatic coloratura
perhaps too young for some of the roles she is rushing into. At her Met debut
— just last year — a last-minute substitution in Ernani,
she seemed talented but mostly prudent, not risking anything in the first act
or two in the way of volume or involvement so that she could be sure of having
both for the concluding trio that pricked up the ears. It was a good
substitution but not what an Elvira ought to be.

As the scheduled diva, in a major role like Semiramide, she still
had problems warming to the task, the voice almost inaudible for the two
quartets and uneven in her sortita, the famous “Bel raggio
lusinghier”: sometimes a clear, lustrous phrase, sometimes a muddy one.
The first duet, “Serbami ognor,” was also cautious, but by the time
of the great Coronation-Apparition Scene where Semiramis must be seen —
and heard — to command the court, the populace, the entire natural world
— so that her terror when the ghost shows up is all the more striking
— she was fully in charge, tossing phrases of good size and cool beauty
through the crowd. Her duets in Act II were also lovely, very well supported.
There were moments of sheer vocal gelato when Meade was singing
circular arpeggios — up and then down and then up again —
while Vivica Genaux harmonized with perfectly judged triplets against each of
Meade’s swift, beautiful notes. It is easy to see why bel canto
lovers like Crutchfield adore Meade’s voice, but she will have to work on
getting into gear sooner and staying there. She may or may not have a major
talent, but she is certainly not ready for the big roles.

Genaux, looking awfully pretty and not the least bit masculine, gave, as
Arsace, the most finished performance of the evening, sounding remarkably like
Marilyn Horne — not because she sang Horne’s music or in a similar
style, but because of a striking similarity of timbre. If anything,
Genaux has a richer, less reedy texture to her instrument. Those sitting close
might be distracted by the wobbles of her lips during passagework (this may be
problematic on video performances), but no one hearing the spectacular effects
this habit gives rise to will have any objection to it. She was accomplished,
smooth, elegant, indefatigable, warmly in character: the evening’s star
— though some regretted the absence of masculine grit in the Horne or
Podles manner.

Daniel Mobbs, the wicked Assur, displayed the least impressive instrument of
the quartet, a voice without attractive colors, dry and, in the lower reaches,
sometimes flat. The expansive threat that Ramey used to bring to the role was
not here, nor the stage-grabbing hamminess appropriate to the mad scene. He is
an able singer with impressive ease in passagework, but not a producer of
fireworks; the adversarial duets lacked thrill.

Lawrence Brownlee had the thankless role of Idreno — but thankless it
wasn’t on this occasion, as his arias were met with joy. Brownlee has
rapidly become a favorite with American bel canto audiences, our
homegrown lirico to set against Florez and Banks, and he tossed his
smallish, pretty, plangent voice with total security up and down a very broad
range (and very quickly, too), occasionally rising to some sizable and solid
high notes where the other stars tended to duck them — probably because
they are a modern stylistic whim. Brownlee also acted stern and displeased
— suiting Idreno’s role of odd man out — which can’t
have been easy considering the audience reaction he was getting.

Despite the rain and the trip and the frogs and the heat, this was a
performance to remind us all what fun Semiramide can be, and should
be, in the proper hands — and throats. Ending just before midnight, the
end didn’t come too soon — but I think most of us were sorry it was
a one-shot, that we could not go back later in the week to compare another such

John Yohalem

image_description=A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905)
product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Semiramide
product_by=Semiramide: Angela Meade; Arsace: Vivica Genaux; Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee; Assur: Daniel Mobbs. Bel Canto at Caramoor, Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Will Crutchfield, performance of July 31.
product_id=Above: A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905)