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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Opera Review: Making Assyria Great Again

The Metropolitan Opera gambles on Rossini's hazardous Semiramide.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Uneasy lies the head: Angela Meade (center) in Semiramide, with Ildar Abdrazakov (right) and Ryan Speedo Green (left).
Photo by Ken Howard © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.

Even in the rarified aviary of the Metropolitan Opera House, Gioachino Rossini's Semiramide is an exotic species. The composer's final opera for the Italian stage was written in 1823. It brought down the curtain on opera seria, the genre that had been at the heart of Italian operatic tradition for well over a century. Brought to the Met in 1892, it had to wait ninety years for a revival, only to be mothballed again for another quarter of a century. On Monday night, the Met finally revived Semiramide as a vehicle for Angela Meade, the American soprano who has enjoyed some success in the current craze for bel canto repertory.

John Copley's staging returned after a 26-year absence. It remains an extravagant affair, with distressed, crumbling sets, bright costumes and elaborate  headgear meant to indicate the mists of antiquity in which this opera is set. With its deep sets, exotic detail and ceremonial robes, this is a product of another time, as remote from the current Met aesthetic as ancient Assyria is from present-day Damascus. Monday night suffered from a turgid dramatic pace, which might have been due to the abrupt dismissal of Mr. Copley during rehearsals. Conductor Maurizio Benini's decision to inflict forty minutes of cuts on the score did not help either: it actually hurt the pacing, made some plot points into hash and rendered this magnificent opera a semi-Semiramide

Semiramide (the name is four syllables, and rhymes with "tray") is the queen of Assyria, the ancient kingdom at the northern end of what is now Iraq. She has conspired to murder her husband Ninus, and faces the choice of three suitors to be his successor. First, the conniving Assur, played with bare-chested bravado by bass Ildar Abdrazakov. Then, tenor Javier Cammarena as the Indian prince Idrino, whose role suffered the most cuts. Last, Arsace (actually Semiramide's son) sung by Elizabeth DeShong. All took their place in impressive and distinctive costumes, in front of the similarly attired chorus. The stately dramatic pacing seemed to dull the audience's senses, despite a thunderous performance from bass Ryan Speedo Green as the priest Oroe.

Finally, Ms. Meade entered, wrapped in great swathes of fabric. She moved about the stage like a queen on a chessboard, with the same uncertainty that haunts the inexperienced player, shuffling carefully down the ramps-and-stairs arrangements that were in vogue at the Met thirty years ago. There were some thrilling moments in her performance, with the standout being the big aria in the Hanging Gardens, a two-part showpiece, and her duets with Ms. DeShong and Mr. Abdrazakov, were the real thing, operatic excitement and evidence that as a composer, Rossini went far beyond The Barber of Seville. (There is actually a trace of that opera in this score--he had no compunctions about borrowing from himself.)

However, the big high notes, this singer's calling card, started to seem strained and forced. She took the leap into the stratosphere at the end of the duet "Serbami ignore si fido" and the audience was split: half thrilled and half bewildered. As she opened her upper register to gain more height, the tone lost flexibility and sweetness. More problematic was the absence of any sense of this woman as the leader of the state, a ruthless killer who committed regicide in a bid for power. All that is needed to make this opera work, and the difficulty of this part is one reason it remains a curiosity.

The men fared better, both vocally and sartorially. Javer Cammarena's character seemed lost in a heavily cut subplot, but he sang his Act II aria (in which he tries to badger Azema (Sarah Shafer) into marriage) with bravery, power and sweet tone that like Ms. Meade's started to harden when pressed. Mr. Abdrazakov was a lot of fun as Assur, leaving teeth marks on the scenery in his mad scene and relishing the role of the cartoon villain. And Ms. DeShong overcame a series of silly hats to rock the notably difficult part of Arsace, showing grit and determination in navigating the sometimes choppy vocal course charted for her character. This trouser part may be Ms. DeShong's breakout role, and it is well deserved.

Since Semiramide isn't performed much, it is interesting to hear how ideas from this opera show up in later works. Verdi, for one cribbed freely from Rossini, and the Act I closing ensemble (superbly delivered by the soloists and the Met chorus) sounded suspiciously like the Miserere from Il Trovatore. Other dramatic masterstrokes in this show owe something to Shakespeare, with the appearance of the Ghost of Ninus (sung by bass Jeremy Galyon with resonant power) and Arsace's general situation redolent of Hamlet. In the final assessment, this is an important, historical opera, one that must be performed despite its difficulty, and its long-awaited revival is an important, if flawed contribution to the current Met season.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.