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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Recordings Review: Babylon and On...and On

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment records Semiramide. (All of it.)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's good to be the queen: Albina Shagimuratova is Semiramide.
Photo courtesy Askonas Holt.
Time has not always been kind to the opera seria of Gioacchino Rossini. While his comedies, led by Il Barbiere di Siviglia are regularly presented on stages around the world, one is less likely to encounter his serious works. Among the finest of these is Semiramide, his 34th opera and his last opera written (in 1823) for an Italian theater. It is the subject of a new and exhaustive recording of the complete score, by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Made in the summer of 2016 at London's Henry Wood Hall, and sprawling on four discs, this four-hour Semiramide offers windows into two different operatic worlds: Rossini's own era and the boom period where studio recordings were common.

This recording was made for the Opera Rara label, a company that has dedicated itself in years past to making recordings of operas that lie neglected today. Opera Rara draws mostly from the fertile bel canto period of the early 19th century. This was an era when opera was a living entity, where composers scrambled to meet the demands of an entertainment-loving public. However, only a handful of works from the major composers of Italy remain in the standard repertory. To give the reader some perspective, Rossini wrote 39 operas before his retirement in the age of 37. (His contemporary Gaetano Donizetti, who died at the age of 50 in an asylum, banged out 75! Different times, indeed.)

Setting a well-loved and much-used libretto (itself based on a play by Voltaire) Semiramide is the last gasp of the genre of opera seria a style that reached its peak in the 18th century operas of Handel. Set in Babylon, this is an elaborate costume drama that follows many of the rules of Greek tragedy. Virtue is rewarded. Sin and injustice are punished. Briefly, the titular queen has murdered her husband with the help of her lover Assur. However, she drops Assur for Arsace, a young and noble warrior of mysterious origins. He becomes her new husband but--surprise!--he's her long-lost son. Lots of complications and da capo singing follows and the opera ends with Semiramide dead, Assur imprisoned and Arsace enthroned.

In the opera house, a complete performance of Semiramide (as recorded here) would run four hours. As a result, the opera is often subject to cuts, either of aria repetitions, opportunities for vocal ornamentation, or in some cases, important arias for some of the lesser characters. However, home listening enables one to experience this work in its full and glorious length. One hears how Rossini develops his melodies to full flower, each a minor miracle of properly balanced form. The studio environment  (a rarity in opera recordings these days) enables the large cast to deliver a series of stunning displays of vocal fireworks, without the peccadilloes that can get in the way at a live performance.

Lighting the fuse is Albina Shagimuratova, a singer who New Yorkers mostly know in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor or as Mozart's Queen of the Night. As this much more evil monarch, she relishes the spotlight. Rossini wrote this part for his wife, the dramatic soprano Isabella Colbran. The Queen has a lot of music to sing over a very wide range. Ms. Shagimuratova faces the terrors of this very difficult part with a strong middle range and dazzling highs that sometimes pierce, but only due to where the notes are written above the stave. More importantly, she delves into the meaning of this text: this is tragedy after all, and succeeds where other sopranos are merely content to approximate some kind of character in this marathon role.

The other singers also succeed. Daniela Barcellona makes the most of her expanded opportunities as Arsace, whizzing up and down the scales with Ms. Shagimuratova. Mirco Palazzi has a wonderful tone and presence as the heavy Assur. His performance comes into its own in the climactic moments of the second act: an underground confrontation that plays with thrilling energy and excitement. Barry Banks is stuck with the less grateful part of Idreno, the opera's secondary hero. However, he navigates the high tessitura with aplomb and tries to make this stock figure more interesting. His duets with Susana Gaspar's Azema are often the first bits cut from this opera, and their inclusion here is of considerable musical interest.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is "historically informed", meaning that its players use only the instruments that would have been available to Rossini in 1823. (Luckily for the listener, that new-fangled invention the ophicleide, is present, its raw and rude tone bringing weight to the overture.) The raw edge of gut strings and the bleating tone of natural horns makes this music crackle, helped by Sir Mark Elder's experienced baton. This set is exhaustive, exhausting, and not for the faint of heart. At four full-priced discs, this set is a hefty investment, but if you want to know what period Rossini really sounded like, this is a pretty good approximation.

Watch an excerpt from the recording sessions of Semiramide here, 
with Daniella Barcelona and Albina Shagimuratova 
whizzing through the Act I duet "Madre, addio." 
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