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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791–1864)
Semiramide (1819) [125.38]
Semiramide - Deborah Riedel (soprano)
Ircano – Filippo Adami (tenor)
Scitalce – Fiona James (mezzo)
Mirteo – Wojtek Gierlach (bass)
Tamiri – Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Sibari – Leonardo Silva (tenor)
Altensteig Rossini Choir
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. live, 9, 13, 15 July 2005, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, Rossini in Wildbad Festival
NAXOS 8.660205-06 [66.25 + 59.13]

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Meyerbeer was born a year before Rossini and died just four years before him. Both studied opera composing in Italy and each wrote operas for the Italian and French stages. Meyerbeer continued to write opera until he died and having found a winning formula, stuck to it; whereas Rossini’s operas helped alter the operatic landscape and he stopped composing early.

Now another fascinating parallel between the composers has come to light, they both wrote operas on the subject of Semiramide the fabled Babylonian queen. Meyerbeer’s opera came first, in 1819 when he set an adaptation of Metastasio’s libretto which was originally written in 1729. Quite why a young German, studying in Turin should be setting a ninety year old opera seria libretto is entirely down to politics. Restoration was in the air, the Congress of Vienna had just finished, various ruling families were returning to their thrones as if the upsets of the Napoleonic era had never happened. Political conservatism was reflected in the choice of librettos; Simone Mayr also wrote an opera based on a Metastasio libretto.

But though the libretto was old, the form of the opera was not. An anonymous adapter, probably Count Lodovico Piossasco Feys, created the libretto for Meyerbeer, adjusting the text so that it had fewer, longer arias, duets and trios and substantial ensembles. The opera deals with Semiramide’s moment of triumph when, after the death of her husband she dresses as a man and pretends to be her own son. When she finally reveals her true self she is acclaimed Queen.

Voltaire, in 1749, produced a tragedy that dealt with the final moments of the queen’s life rather then her triumphal moment. It was this work which gave rise to Rossini’s opera dealing with the legendary queen. Though the two works deal with different aspects of the same story, their construction has much in common. It is almost certain that Rossini’s librettist, Gaetano Rossi, deliberately introduced the dramatic affinities between the two works. But Meyerbeer’s score sounds to our ears, very Rossinian indeed. Both operas deal with similar confusions of identity and sex, with the wrong people falling in love.

Meyerbeer’s Semiramide was a minor hit and had one or two revivals. The composer’s revised version has disappeared and we only have the score for his original version. The opera does not seem to have been performed between the 1820s and the production in July 2005 at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, during which this recording was made.

The opera’s title role was written for one of the most talented singers of the day, Carolina Bassi. She sang contralto as well as soprano parts and Meyerbeer wrote what is effectively a mezzo-soprano part for her until the moment when the character drops her male disguise and reveals her true self. Then the music encompasses the soprano top A flat and B flats. The booklet states that the version performed ‘incorporates a number of cuts and revisions made to suit the vocal talents of the cast involved’. But they don’t actually say what the revisions are. The singer playing Semiramide, Deborah Riegel, is billed as a soprano and I get the feeling that the part might have been eased up a little for her; but I can’t be sure, which is frustrating.

The opera is conducted by the capable hands of Richard Bonynge, who certainly knows how to pace an opera of this period. He is also adept at being flexible and supporting the singers, you never feel that the pace is too driven, but things never drag either; an art which some younger conductors have not really learned.

As for the singers, they are all very capable. They are all singing parts of fearsome difficulty which require bravura performances. The danger in this sort of music is that singers are over careful and though we get the virtuosity we fail to get the sense of showy bravura that this music requires.

That is not so here, all project the music beautifully. The downside is that there are hints of untidiness and unsteadiness in all parts. Tenor Filippo Adami’s voice is an acquired taste, though he does real wonders with it. Both Deborah Riedel and Fiona James have voices that do not react well to pressure at the top of their range. That said, in their duets they contribute some beautifully relaxed singing. Wojtek Gierlach is billed as a bass, though his part was written for a baritone. Gierlach has an attractive grainy voice and makes a fine contribution though the plum parts go to the higher voices.

The continuo is played on a harpsichord which would seem remarkably anachronistic for an opera premiered in 1819.

Early, Italian Meyerbeer has done rather well recently. Opera Rara have recorded some of his Italian operas and now we have this one from Naxos. What is strange, of course, is that his later French operas have not fared anything like as well in the record catalogues. These are the operas for which he is famous, but modern recordings of them are rare and they don’t stay in the catalogues long. Perhaps someone needs to set up a French version of Opera Rara.

The Rossini in Wildbad festival are to be congratulated on finding a group of singers who could cope so well with such a taxing and unknown score. The performance is not ideal but is much more than creditable; having been recorded at live, staged performances helps enormously as the singers project their roles with drama and bravura, even if details get smudged. If you are interested in early Meyerbeer, or influences on Rossini, then do buy it.

Robert Hugill


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