Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment CREDIT: CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU
The Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova took the title-role for the first time – her bright, starry soprano, suited to the dazzle of the Queen of the Night, isn’t a natural match for the darker emotions of the tormented Semiramide, but after a weak start she opened up in “Bel raggio” and went on to produce vibrant and golden tone, shaped into fluently expressive phrases.
Her Arsace was Daniela Barcellona – too soft-grained for my taste in a role that needs swagger, but unfailingly musical and stylish. The audience gave her a particularly rapturous reception. Mirco Palazzi, a young Italian bass substituting at short notice for Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, lacked the imperious authority that should ooze from the villain Assur, but he too is an excellent singer who did a commendable job on technically demanding music. Barry Banks and Gianluca Buratto made equally strong contributions in subsidiary roles, and James Platt gave us all the shudders as the baleful ghost of Semiramide’s murdered husband. The chorus has some of the opera’s best music, and Opera Rara’s ensemble sang it with delicacy and precision – bravo.
I’ve heard Rossini’s Semiramide live only once before in my life, and all I can remember is being bored limp. A tragedy set in Ancient Babylon, in which a murderous queen is enamoured of Arsace, a General who turns out to be her son Ninia, it is neither credible nor taut, and the resort to jauntiness when the mood should be martial or melancholic reduces its overall impact to bathos.
However, Opera Rara’s performance persuades me to reconsider: I wouldn’t say I was gripped throughout this four-hour Prom, but I was certainly intermittently impressed. Semiramide’s aria “Bel raggio” and her duets with Arsace may be relatively familiar through Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne’s recordings, but I for one hadn’t previously registered the potency of the recitative, nor the magnificence of the extended first-act finale. Even if Semiramide doesn’t rise to the heights of Rossini’s masterpiece Guillaume Tell or Bellini’s Norma (which it influenced), it merits occasional revival.
Conductor Mark Elder was the evening’s hero. From the menacingly urgent crescendo that launches the Overture, he took every note of the opera seriously, whipping the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on like a champion jockey to produce a sound that was grainy, pungent and forceful. Even when Rossini sinks into cliché, as in Arsace’s prolix second-act aria, he kept the temperature high.
Even if Semiramide doesn’t rise to the heights of Rossini’s masterpiece Guillaume Tell, it merits occasional revival.Rupert Christiansen