Say “Semiramide” to
any self-respecting opera-goer and they will immediately
think of Rossini’s masterpiece of 1823, his last opera composed
in Italy. Yet the libretto of Semiramide (or Semiramis)
had been around for a good deal before Rossini’s time, and
had been set by a number of his operatic predecessors. Written
by one of opera’s leading librettists Metastasio in 1729,
Semiramide was set around forty times during the 18th century
alone, Hasse, Vivaldi, Gluck and Salieri being among those
who had tried their hand at the subject.
over four years before Rossini was to take up his pen another
master of 19th century operatic theatre was busy
working on the tale. This was no great surprise. Despite
the attempts to establish a new political and social order
in post-Napoleonic Europe, the arts remained entrenched in
a conservatism that harked back to the previous century.
Thus Metastasian libretti were still very much in favour,
and so it was quite natural for the young Meyerbeer, working
in Turin, to turn to one for inspiration.
the 18th century influence meant that Meyerbeer
tended to stick to a rather “closed” structure for the work,
using mostly set numbers and ensembles interspersed with
recitative. However he did break with this format for the
Act 1 finale, which does build a more substantial edifice,
a pre-echo of Rossini’s achievements to come.
Meyerbeer’s otherwise copious diaries and correspondence
are distinctly lacking for the period of Semiramide’s composition,
1818-19, despite the assiduous researches of the composers
biographer Robert Ignatius Letellier, whose four volume collection
of diaries are published by the Fairleigh Dickinson Press.
we do know that “Semiramide” did win a minor success when
it opened at the Teatro Regio on 30 January 1819, incidentally
receiving better reviews in the German than the Italian press.
In the following year the opera was further staged in Bologna
and Senigallia, re-titled now as “Semiramide riconosciuta”, and
containing a certain amount of re-written material. Alas
this version has completely disappeared, along with Meyerbeer’s
original score. Only a contemporary manuscript copy of the
first version survived, and this forms the basis for the
has to be said that “festival” casts can present the listener
with certain compromises, especially vocally, in a laudable
attempt to get works staged at all. I don’t feel that is
the case here. The cast acquit themselves pretty well. Listen
to Olga Peretyatko in her Act 2 aria “D’un genio che m’accende
tu vuoi ragion da me” for example; a delightfully lilting
piece whose spirit the Russian soprano catches admirably.
A little later in a duet “Barbaro non dolerti” the rather
dark - and appropriately commanding - soprano of Deborah
Riedel blends particularly well with mezzo Fiona James (Scitalce).
I did wonder initially if there might be problems telling
them apart in concerted passages but my fears proved groundless.
the Ircano, Fillipo Adami, makes a very decent attempt at
a heroic bel canto tenor, a discipline not exactly bursting
with candidates, although things have improved somewhat in
recent years with the so-called “Rossini revival”. He sings “Io
prigionero?”, later in the act, with decent attack and a
sappy top to the voice; indeed he even manages the divisions
reasonably well. The Mirteo, Polish-born and trained Wojtek
Gierlach, maintains the standard of the other principals
with a warm, firmly centred bass.
singing and orchestral playing is decent with Richard Bonynge
showing his considerable experience in this sort of repertoire,
by allowing solos and duets to flow whilst controlling the
bigger ensembles unobtrusively. The recording is a little
cramped, the auditorium I guess is not huge, and whilst there
isn’t much obtrusive stage noise the audience is quite enthusiastic
and applause may distract those used to the studio. However
as the likelihood of another recording is pretty remote,
the message is clear - if you like the repertoire I’m afraid
you’ll just have to make allowances. Despite the lack of
texts and translations there is, as usual with Naxos, a good
synopsis as well as some colour production stills.
is an interesting and very worthwhile release that throws
light on a corner of Meyerbeer’s career not otherwise overly
endowed with information. It is even more welcome as it is
well performed and decently recorded.
is just left curious. If only more manuscript material had
survived; one wonders what changes Meyerbeer wrought upon
the work? Had it been more successful .. what effect it might
it have had on Rossini’s version of the tale in 1823? Alas,
we may never know…
see also review by Robert Hugill