A Stunning Semiramide from Opera Rara

Rossi apparently found the environment creatively advantageous, writing to
Giacomo Meyerbeer (with whom he had previous worked on the dramatization of
an aspect of the same legend) that Rossini’s home was, ‘Delicious, really,
in all its pleasant surroundings: beautiful gardens, a voluptuous small
chapel, lake, hills, woods, and a magnificent, elegant house. We’re
drafting the outline: he approved all the situations that I had already
settled on. He began to compose yesterday’. Work went well, and Rossi later
reported, ‘We’ve made an Introduzione a la Meyerbeer […] even
Colbran will appear in it. A grand spectacle, an imposing picture’.


was the last opera that Rossini wrote for the Italian stage, before he
upped sticks for Paris. Richard Osborne describes Rossini’s opera as ‘the
apotheosis of the Italian neoclassical style and a consummate example of
music’s ability to map sensation for sensation’s sake … destined to hold
the stage for as long as there were singers to sing it.’

Opera Rara certainly has indeed found the ‘singers to sing it’,
and we heard them first at the

BBC Proms in 2016

, a performance of Semiramide which was, for me, one of the
‘stand-out moments’ of that Proms season. Now, Rossini’s opera has become
the first recording to be distributed for Opera Rara by Warner Classics, a
partnership which was announced in July this year. Warner Classics have
assumed worldwide distribution for Opera Rara recordings and this includes
all future recordings as well as Opera Rara’s recent, awarding winning
releases – including International Opera Award-winning recordings of


and Donizetti’s

Les Martyrs


Semiramide is no conventional seria ‘heroine’: rather a
megalomaniac murderer who has assassinated her husband, with the help of
her admirer Assure, in order that she can grab the throne of Babylon for
herself. However, as Shakespeare’s Gertrude found, mariticide never does
run smoothly, and her path to the crown is complicated by her passion for
Arsace – who, unbeknown to them both, is her son.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Semiramide had largely
disappeared from the stage. When the opera was given its first
modern performances on 17th December 1962 at La Scala, it was
largely as a vehicle suited to the talents of Joan Sutherland and Giulietta
Simionato. It’s a long listen, even by the standards of the
early-nineteenth century: without cuts, it runs to roughly three hours and
forty-five minutes.

So, who would or should buy this box-set, which includes the libretto in
Italian and English, and a detailed, informative, illustrated liner article
by Benjamin Walton, alongside four discs comprising nearly four hours of

First, anyone who wants to hear terrific bel canto singing by a
cast who appreciate that the beauty of the style is the symbiosis of
expressive vocalism and dramatic vitality. As the eponymous Queen, Albina
Shagimuratova demonstrates far more control over her technique than
Semiramide does over her passions, but her effortless coloratura is far
from colourless. The Act 1 showpiece, ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’, in which –
her spirits lifted by the chirpy woodwind and buoyant chorus of the
aria-preface – Semiramide rejoices in the return to Babylon of Arsace,
shines with ripples of rapture. The virtuosity dazzles – the shimmering
string tremolandos seem to flow from her vocal frissons – but is
also affecting. The rhythms are unfailingly vivacious, the phrasing
heart-stirring. Sir Mark Elder whips up an instrumental and choral revel
which Shagimuratova rides with gleaming glory. The complex, long throne
scene that ends the Act is expertly shaped by Elder, and the soprano paces
the scene and articulates the text superbly: I can almost believe in her
avowal of devotion and service to her people, so thrillingly does she crest
the vocal waves with fullness of tone and depth of feeling. Then, we feel
the claws of fear – her blood curdles, she cannot breathe – that grip her
when her dead husband seems to rise from his tomb: the pounding, accusatory
thumps of the orchestra inspire more terror than any director is likely to
conjure on stage.

Daniela Barcellona is a sincere Arsace. In her presentation aria, ‘Eccomi
alfine in Babilonia’, we sense every ounce of the veneration which infuses
Arsace’s soul upon his return to Babylon, believing that his dying
‘father’, Fradate, has sent him there to answer a call from Semiramide,
while his heart burns with passion for Azema. His awe is evoked by
momentous silences which are emphasised by playing of tremendous clarity by
the woodwind and by the violas’ insistent ostinato flutterings, though the
strings’ ascending pizzicato and a nasally riposte from the woodwind sound
a note of danger. Arsace’s homage to the temple of Baal descends with
resonating reverence, Barcellona demonstrating both textual awareness and
vocal precision. Her voice overflows with love, and memories of feelings
love inspires, in the following cavatina, ‘Ah! quel giorno’: here, the dark
colours of her mezzo shine with paradoxical brilliance. Elder keeps things
moving along, while giving space for Barcellona to relish the text, to make
velvety flights through her melodic range and to demonstrate her command of
the coloratura. The latter is also evident in ‘In si barbara sciagura’, in
which the vibrant orchestral contribution never ‘accompanies’ but always
heightens and complements.

And, in duet, Shagimuratova and Barcellona complement each other
wonderfully. In Act 1, when the Queen confesses her love, Shagimuratova’s
soprano has a lovely ‘cleanness’ that belies her murderous previous
actions, though perhaps the beautiful curlicues and outbursts don’t
entirely deceive us even if Arsace duped, submitting to images of peace and
joy. Barcellona’s runs and roulades slip by like silk but leave the
impression of the plushness of velvet: bel canto at its very best.

Mirco Palazzi’s smooth bass makes him a deceptively spiteful Assur. In his
Act 2 duet with Semiramide, in which her guilt leads her to blame and
reject her accomplice-assassin, Palazzi’s agile bass resonates with lithe
indignation and a piercing resentment founded on truth, ‘Remember … who
drove me to treachery’. His threat to rob of her of both her sanity and her
throne descends to menacingly purposeful depths, but Assur’s warning that
the Queen should fear the shade cast by her husband’s hovering shadow rings
purely and with a beguiling warmth and directness which is undoubtedly
disturbing, and which makes Palazzi’s subsequent extended descent into
insanity even more distressing.

Alongside the central principals, Barry Banks sails through Idreno’s vocal
flights with ease, and his Act 2 courtship of Azema, ‘La speranza pi˘
soave’, is beautifully shaped, shuddering with passion. The minor roles of
Azema, Mitrade, and the high priest Oreo, are stylishly taken by Susana
Gaspar, David Philip Butt and Gianluca Buratto respectively. Embedded in
the Royal Albert Hall Arena, James Platt cut a disturbing white-suited
‘Ghost of King Nino’, but deprived of the visual context Platt still makes
a cavernous impression.

gives us Babylonian myth by way of Voltaire, with a dash of Hamlet
and Oedipus; the joy of a recording, over a staging, is that we
don’t really have to ‘make sense’ of the characters … they can be
histrionic and hyperbolic and still sound wonderful. Elder’s ability to
craft extended sequences of tension is second to none, and he is ably abetted by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The first forty bars
of the Sinfonia give us a wonderful taste of what is to come: there are
urgent palpitations from the lower strings, from which bursts an explosion
of colour. Release follows in the form of the relaxed blend of horns and
bassoon, before a flash of fire consumes us with the entry of the full
orchestra. The flames are assuaged by the woodwind but dancing pizzicato
dialogues in the strings keep the embers smoking. It’s hard to believe that
just a few minutes have passed, so many emotions have we traversed. And, as
we proceed the musical landscape is never settled emotionally, but always
perfectly structured and executed. Detail and diversity serve the drama, to
an effect which is both immediate and slow-burning.

So, to return to my earlier question, who should buy this Opera Rara
recording? Lovers of Rossini, of beautiful and dramatic singing, but also
those interested in history and legend – mythic, operatic or otherwise.

2019 will see the release of Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida, which received its

world premiere at the Royal Opera House

under Sir Mark’s baton, in July this year. Before that, on 21st
November, Opera Rara will present the original version of Puccini’s one-act

Le Villi

, the composer’s first stage work, at the Royal Festival Hall; this
performance will unite Ermonela Jaho – the star of Opera Rara’s first foray
into verismo territory, Leoncavallo’s


– with American baritone, Brian Mulligan, and the young Armenian tenor,
Arsen Soghomonyan. Le Villi will subsequently be recorded for
release by Warner Classics.

Claire Seymour

Rossini: La Semiramide (recorded at the Henry Wood Hall,
August/September 2016)

Albina Shagimuratova (Semiramide), Daniela Barcellona (Arsace), Mirco
Palazzi (Assur), Barry Banks (Idreno), Gianluca Buratto (Oroe), Susana
Gaspar (Azema), David Butt Philip (Mitrane), James Platt (L’ombra di Nino);
Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment &
Opera Rara Chorus.

Opera Rara, ORC57 [4 CDs: 66:48, 65:18, 63:16, 36:21]


Cited in Richard Osborne, Rossini: His Life and Works
(Oxford University Press, 2007).

image_description=Rossini:Semiramide. Opera Rara: Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
product_title=Rossini:Semiramide. Opera Rara: Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Opera Rara ORC57 [4CDs]