A Semiramide Revival Has a Death by Baton

Ancient Babylonia, photo @ Ken Howard
You might have recalled that a month ago I was dithering about whether to see Semiramide or a second performance of Parsifal. Wagner beat out Rossini. The great thing about living in NYC though is that I had a chance to see Semiramide as well. Win-win I guess. So last night I was transported back to the magical world of ancient Babylonia ...

Oh who am I kidding? This revival of Semiramide was lifeless and uninspiring and didn't transport me anywhere except to constant glances at my watch. It wasn't really the singers' fault per se, nor was it the production's -- John Copley's 1991 production presented this opera seria with some picturesque tableaus and fabulous costumes. Instead the energy-killer last night was conductor Maurizio Benini.

The opera was heavily cut -- about 45 minutes worth of music. But instead of cutting entire numbers, there were a bunch of disfiguring internal cuts. Arias or choruses jumped from the first stanza to the "final" cabaletta stanza without any transition in between. So as a result the opera actually seemed longer because it was so repetitive -- choral interludes or chances to decorate the second verses were gone. It became one number after another with no connections.

Benini also managed to conduct Rossini while avoiding any hint of the famous Rossini crescendo. I don't know how that's possible, but there it is. It all was smoothed over into some sort of primo ottocento easy listening muzak. I'm not that familiar with this score but even I could tell that there were moments like the appearance of Semiramide's murdered husband's ghost where the music was supposed to sound much more atmospheric and ominous than it did. Bleh.

Meade and Abdrazakov, photo @ Ken Howard
The cast was okay-ish. Angela Meade in the title role has a large, competent dramatic coloratura soprano voice which she used to fairly good effect for most of the opera. A few caveats: her ornamentation mostly consists of blasting high notes in alt which might be crowd-pleasing but definitely isn't Rossinian. Her voice in the middle register can sound abrasive -- there's a hard edge to it that is not exactly ugly but not pretty either. "Bel raggio" had a pennywhistle high E. My thing about these extreme notes in alt is that they better be great. Meade's high notes are there, but they're thin and disconnected from the rest of her voice.

More bothersome was her complete disengagement from the character. She never seemed more than slightly perturbed at all the storyline surrounding her. "My dead husband whom I murdered has returned as a ghost. Oh well." "The man I love is actually my son. Oops." Changes in mood were indicated by turning her face -- face away from a character = upset. A face towards a character = happy. An appearance of her murdered husband's ghost caused her to simply look down at her hands. When she read the letter that informed Arsace of his real parentage her response was to crumple the letter up and then take a seat in the temple. Very dramatic.

Sarah Mesko
Elisabeth DeShong in the trouser role of Arsace was sick and replaced by Sarah Mesko. Mesko was obviously nervous and shaky in her Act 1 aria "Ah! Quel giorno" but once her voice settled in she was a pleasant mezzo-soprano who managed the music well despite having a voice that sits too high for this role. Brava to her for stepping in on such short notice and giving a creditable performance. She's also a tall handsome woman who looked believable as a young man.

Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur was more problematic. His voice is no longer flexible enough to really handle Rossini roulades and so the coloratura was sketched rather than truly sung. He also does not have the low notes needed for the role -- they came out as a sort of growl. He did look great in those shirtless costumes, I'll give him that.

For a comparison, here's Ildar in the Act 2 mad scene vs. Samuel Ramey. You can hear how much richer and more flexible Ramey's voice is.

Camarena, photo @ Ken Howard
The best, most consistent singing of the night came from the characters with the most tangential relation to the plot. Ryan Speedo Green projected real authority as Oroe the high priest. His voice has a rather prominent vibrato which might not be to everyone's taste but this is a major voice and I can't wait to see what he does next. Javier Camarena's role in the opera is even weaker -- Idreno loves Azema who loves Arsace who is loved by Semiramide. So that's like 4 degrees of separation from the central drama. But he does have two show-stopping arias, one in the first act and one in the second act. Alas, Rossini roulades are not really Camarena's specialty either (a lot of his runs were aspirated), but his bright, pingy voice and astonishing upper register (I lost track of how many high notes he interpolated) were definitely a much-needed jolt of adrenaline. Old timers often lament "lack of squillo." Camarena definitely has squillo.

Peter Gelb has made it known he loves primo ottocento opera, and under his reign the Met has finally "caught up" to the rest of the world in the sense that works like the Three Queens Trilogy, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell, and La Donna del Lago were finally staged, and warhorses like L'elisir, La Cenerentola, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, Norma, La Sonnambula, I Puritani, La Fille du Regiment, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia get more play-time. This is all to the good. But casting for these works remains inconsistent -- disfigured by old-fashioned cuts, sung by singers who have intermittent understanding of primo ottocento style, conducted by routiniers. Last night someone who had never heard any Rossini before might have concluded that he was a dull, ponderous, repetitive composer. Do it right or don't do it at all.


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