At the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro—the composer’s birthplace on the Adriatic—it is always a treat when a major work of the composer’s maturity, such as one of his later Neapolitan operas or his Parisian works, is included among the three principal offerings. Such was the case this year when the festival produced his very last Italian opera, Semiramide, which was first seen in Venice in 1823, not long before Rossini moved to Paris. It should be borne in mind that Rossini’s mature years as an opera composer extended only to 1829, when at thirty-seven he stopped writing them altogether, but if any opera can be considered the crowning glory of his Italian career (which, of course, is most of his career) it is Semiramide. And there is nothing immature about it.
At the time of the work’s composition, most operagoers would have associated its subject with Pietro Metastasio’s libretto of the same title, which had been set to music by numerous composers. Rossini’s opera, with a new libretto by Gaetano Rossi, eclipsed all these renditions but went through its own period of temporary eclipse, only to be rediscovered in the latter part of the twentieth century. Unlike Metastasio’s version, it is based on Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis. An Oedipal encounter between Semiramide, the queen of Babylon, and Ninia, her long-lost son who under the name of Arsace has forged a brilliant military career, is intimated when Semiramide chooses Arsace as Babylon’s new king and her husband. Their wedding is stopped and the marriage averted by the timely appearance of the ghost of Semiramide’s husband, Nino. New problems arise for Arsace, however, when he learns that he is Semiramide’s son and that she was complicit in his father’s murder by the prince Assur. The situation lands Arsace in a classic operatic dilemma: he is duty-bound to avenge his father’s murder, but to do so requires the death of his mother.
The drama unfolds at a leisurely pace in a series of magnificent, formally expansive musical numbers, over the course of which the principal characters emerge as flesh-and-blood personages. Besides the central dilemma, Arsace faces uncertainty in his relationship with his beloved, the princess Azema. Semiramide’s reunion with her son only intensifies her anguish over the remorse she feels for her role in her husband’s death. The declining fortunes of Assur, who once aspired to the throne, gradually reduce him to a desperate, mentally unhinged figure.
The principal strength of Graham Vick’s staging was that it never lost sight of the emotional essence of the characters, despite a number of superfluous details. The stage of Vitrifrigo Arena was interestingly configured with platforms on either side, of which Vick made good use in delineating the plot, and he even had a runway in front of the orchestra pit, which allowed the characters closer proximity to the audience. On one of the platforms, though, was a child’s twin bed, as if Vick were engaging in a little armchair psychology about the effects on Semiramide of having lost track of her son (although Arsace was drawn to the bed too). An oversized teddy bear was present during the orchestral prelude to Semiramide’s big aria, “Bel raggio lusinghier,” and chalk was available for the characters to scrawl their thoughts on the walls. Stuart Nunn’s decor included a massive eye on the backdrop, looking out toward the audience. Strangely, but effectively, Vick portrayed the priests of the Magi as scantily clad figures who could have been members of some Indian ascetic cult. For the most part, though, the timeframe was updated to the present without serious damage.
The cast (as seen on August 20) was not one for the ages, but was well balanced and succeeded in putting the opera across. The young soprano Salome Jicia, who came to prominence here three years ago in La donna del lago, sang confidently with a sturdy voice that was short on luster, although her characterization had dramatic flair. Seeing Semiramide wearing a pantsuit at her entrance was a bit of a shock; Jicia’s appearance sometimes reminded me of Theresa May.
Somewhat better was Varduhi Abrahamyan in the trouser role of Arsace. To my taste, her dusky mezzo-soprano could have had more focus, but she also gave an involving, technically secure performance, and she looked good in a leather pantsuit that alluringly, though bizarrely (given that she was portraying a young man), played up her feminine sexuality with a low-cut top. Nahuel di Pierro’s bass voice at first sounded a size too small for Assur, but he too offered an arresting portrayal, not least when suggesting Assur’s incipient madness. The Indian king Idreno is peripheral to the plot but has two big arias, to which the tenor Antonino Siragusa brought a strong and metallic, if at times harsh, tone. Martiniana Antonie sang prettily what little music Rossini gave Azema, and two imposing basses, Carlo Cigni and Sergey Artamonov, were heard as the high priest Oroe and the Ghost of Nino, respectively. Michele Mariotti ably conducted the Chorus of the Teatro Ventidio Basso and the National Symphony Orchestra of rai.
In his book Divas and Scholars, the late Rossini expert Philip Gossett spoke of his experience as an advisor to the Metropolitan Opera’s celebrated 1990 revival of Semiramide, mentioning in particular, in connection with Assur’s “mad scene” aria, the predilection of modern basses to end the aria on a tonic high F (an octave above what Rossini wrote) and the attendant problem created by sustaining that note during the orchestral postlude, in which tonic and dominant harmonies alternate: the singer’s F conflicts with the dominant harmony each time the latter occurs. It was depressing to find Mariotti tolerating a sustained high F from Di Pierro and the resulting harmonic clashes. But the sad fact is that singers nowadays hold on to final high notes for all they are worth, and only a few stylistically conscious conductors—Mariotti not among them—seem to care. Pesaro deserves better.