Gioachino Rossini - Semiramide
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017
Michele Mariotti, David Alden, Joyce DiDonato, Alex Esposito, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, Elsa Benoit, Galeano Salas, Igor Tsarkov, Simone Alberghini
Staatsoper TV Live - 26 February 2017
It seems to me that the Bavarian State Opera have been much more successful in striking a balance between fidelity to the original intentions of an opera and a more modernised approach to presentation, where in the past they might have been a bit more radical and hit-and-miss. The production of Rossini's lengthy opera seria Semiramide with its setting in antiquity was however always going to be a good testing ground to see if the high standard set so far this season could be maintained. Happily, David Alden's production is perfectly pitched, and with an outstanding cast of Rossinian singers, this was an impressive account of a challenging work.
Challenging certainly as far as singing is concerned (with Joyce DiDonato playing the Assyrian Queen, you would feel that this critical element at least is well catered for), but challenging also in as far as striking a balance between the political machinations of Ancient Assyria and the traditional overheated romantic complications that are tied up in it. The director can't just indiscriminately impose a nice balanced viewpoint either - as directors might have done at this Munich opera house in the past - but needs to take into consideration the nature of Rossini's musical treatment, which does tend to exert a strong force and intent of its own.
So what does Rossini set out to achieve in Semiramide? Well, it's an opera seria written in 1823, the composer's last work in Italy before he moved to Paris, taking his work to a new level that would effectively influence the structure and tone of Italian opera for rest of the century. Semiramide can then be seen as the last of an older style of opera not that far removed from those of the 18th century, a style of opera fast growing out of fashion even then. It's as if Gluck's opera reforms had never happened, and as far as Italian opera is concerned the new rules never really applied, as the Rossini style would provide a direction for the opera seria form to morph into the even more extravagant style of bel canto.
What can already be seen in Semiramide however is Rossini's own method of expanding the set subjects of the older form into something involving far more dramatic expression. Instead of arias we have more confrontational duets, and the chorus is not there to comment on the situation but becomes the voice of the people involved and implicated in the dramatic events. Rossini's musical underscoring only intensifies the emotional charge and conductor Michele Mariotti brings all those familiar techniques out wonderfully with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. The racing rhythms are already in place, the melodies, the pizzicato plucked strings building into marching rhythms that speeding up into winding wild spins and crashing crescendos. It's not as sophisticated as Rossini's later work for Paris, but it's still highly effective.
The drama in Semiramide however remains a challenge, even with such music to probe the underlying dramatic tensions and conflict. Like most opera seria, the subject is not so much a political power struggle as a romantic melodrama with family complications. To sum the long opera up in a few lines, the Queen Semiramide is expected to hand power over to her consort Assur, the general who helped her murder her husband, the ruler King Nino. Semiramide however stuns everyone by announcing that she will marry the war hero Arsace, not realising that Arsace is actually her missing son, Ninia, nor - in true opera seria tradition - caring about the romantic complications this might cause for others. The turn of events force King Nino's ghost to rise from the grave to demand vengeance from Arsace who, when he discovers his true identity, knows who is the villain he must kill.
With a ghost scene, a mad scene (Assur furious to the point of derangement at Semiramide's rejection), religious intoning and dramatic revelations accompanied by peals of thunder, Rossini certainly ups the stakes of the opera seria, pointing the way towards not only bel canto but grand opera. David Alden's production captures perfectly this sense of something old given a new twist. Paul Steinberg's sets of elegant rooms with adjustable walls and large family portraits, convey a sense of shifting arrangements within a rich, corrupt family. That's the dominant tone, but there is room for the grand gestures that come out in Rossini's music, with a large statue of King Nino towering over several scenes in a display of power, and pictures moving and coming to life during the more melodramatic revelation scenes.
With the emphasis on home and family, what comes across more effectively in Semiramide is the underlying sense of love being a more important factor than power. Those who aspire to power without knowing true love end up the worse for their ambitions, eaten up with frustrations, their families torn apart by their desire for revenge. It's family as society as well then, and the chorus likewise have a large part to play in the drama as the citizens witnessing the upheaval that is taking place within the royal family. As far as Semiramide is concerned, it does soften how she is portrayed since there is love there for Arsace, which even though it is misplaced is transformed in an almost redemptive fashion when she becomes aware of his true identity.
Like any good director then, Alden's job is to be true to the story and the personalities as Rossini might have intended, respecting the work for the time it was written, but still making it appealing to a modern audience. Alden acknowledges the history and the location with a few nods in the costumes, but sets it more within what he describes as a combination of North Korea and modern Middle East. There's no need for historical reconstruction here; it's an opera. What matters more is that everything is geared towards drawing out the themes by whatever means necessary and giving the appropriate space for the music and the singers to elaborate upon those distinctive elements that Rossini specifically brings to the opera medium.
Which brings us to Joyce DiDonato. Now there's a singer who is more than capable of doing justice to Rossini's terrific writing for the voice for the role of Semiramide, Queen of Assyria. And it's not just her singing ability and the quality of the voice, which should already be very well-known. What is just as important is that there is 'presence' there too, the essential star quality that is necessary to carry a role like this and do justice to the vocal challenges and to the complexity that it reveals within the character. She assumes the role of the Queen brilliantly, looking every inch the diva, carrying the extravagances of the drama with complete authority and conviction. Without this kind of interpretation the opera would be a much lesser work in performance. Fortunately, it really doesn't get much better than this.
It's an excellent cast all round however, many of them experienced Rossinians. Alex Esposito sings comfortably within the bass role of Assur, but he still has a tendency to overplay the eye-rolling villain. It feels more like he is performing than really inhabiting the role. Assur admittedly isn't as nuanced a character as Semiramide and does go full-blown crazy, but Rossini's music makes this plain enough without additional emphasis being required. Daniela Barcellona is superb as Arsace, another challenging role that really needs a contralto voice and it's the kind of trouser role that Barcellona specialises in. Rossini generously gives lovely pieces to all the leads, which gives Lawrence Brownlee the opportunity to shine as Idreno. Elsa Benoit also makes a good impression staggering around as a confused Azema, but even Galeano Salas's Mitrane and Simone Alberghini's Oroe have their moments and take them well. The chorus work too is just tremendous, and the Bayerische Staatsoper just continue to go from strength to strength.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV