> DVD - Rossini - Semiramide [JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide (1823)
June Anderson ... Semiramide (sop)
Marilyn Horne ... Arsace (alto)
Stanford Olsen ... Idreno (ten)
Samuel Ramey ... Assur (bar)
Young-Ok Shin ... Azema (sop)
John Cheek ... Oroe (bar)
Jeffrey Wells ... L'ombra di Nino (bar)
Michael Forest ... Mitrane
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Conlon
Director: John Copley
Recorded Metropolitan Opera House, New York, December 1990
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 222 [2 discs: 223 mins]

You've got to hand it to the Met. If you are going to mount a performance of Rossini's final Italian blockbuster then there is only one way to do it, and that is properly. That means investing in lavish sets and costumes, arranging them in grand, tableau-esque public scenes to show them to best advantage, and gathering a cast that can cope with the hair-raising vocal demands that Rossini (and his Venetian audience) expected from professional singers schooled in the bel canto style of the period. It also needs a conductor who can navigate with a sure pace through what is a very large musical landscape.

Stage director John Copley and his designer clearly had the budget to do what is required and they are served by a rare breed of singers who can convincingly carry off that combination of lyricism and virtuoso coloratura that is the bel canto style. After Semiramide, when Rossini went to Paris, he wrote new operas (and adapted some old ones) to cater for the taste for grand opera in the French manner. This meant dropping some of the Italianisms that suffuse Semiramide, including the florid vocalising and the habit of writing main male parts to be sung by women, a hangover from Italian castrato practice. Yet Semiramide clearly shows how some French Grand Opera practice had crept into Italy, especially in Venice, and the result is a grand opera that is Rossini’s final and finest celebration of bel canto.

There have been a number of reasons offered as to why this masterpiece dropped out of the repertoire not long after its initial success (although there was a performance at the Met in 1894). One of them is that the kind of bel canto mezzo-soprano required to play Arsace, the male lead, had virtually died out by the second half of the nineteenth century. The opera’s 20th century post war resurrection depended on a revival of the breed and here we have the magnificent Marilyn Horne who has made a major contribution to the return of some of Rossini’s forgotten masterpieces to the repertoire. This recording is over a decade old now, yet even then Marilyn Horne seemed to have been around a very long time. My initial encounter with her voice was on one of the first LPs I ever heard, dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, the black musical version of Carmen in the mid-fifties. Her teaming up with Joan Sutherland in Semiramide in the sixties provided one of the great vocal feasts of the decade and the Decca recording of 1966, in spite of all that Donizetti, was probably the finest thing that Sutherland and conductor husband, Richard Bonynge, ever did together. It set a benchmark that was not endangered by the recording made nearly thirty years later by DG with Cheryl Studer and Jennifer Larmore under an erratic Ion Marin. This DVD though provides a worthy competitor to the Bonynge.

Marilyn Horne’s Semiramide is June Anderson who is well capable of handling the vertiginous coloratura although she’s not quite La Stupenda – but then who is. Neither of them could be accused of putting too much effort into the acting side but to be fair, their rather static approach to things is a production issue and what they do is in keeping with the overall tableau approach designed for the vastness of the Met. This does become a disadvantage for DVD because when the camera homes in on, for example, an intimate duet, we are invading a space in a way that is not possible for most of the audience.

One of the great strengths of the production is its sense of homogeneity, especially on the musical side. A strong feeling teamwork persists which may have something to do with this world class performance being an all American affair from conductor through orchestra, chorus and cast. The result is an accuracy of ensemble that often borders on, and reaches, perfection. A well known example is Serbami ognor, the extended duet between Semiramide and Arsace made famous by Sutherland and Horne in extracted form. The first section of it is taken significantly slower by Conlon compared with Horne’s version with Bonynge, but conductor, orchestra and soloists are absolutely at one in the rendering. Perfection.

This DVD at last provides a worthy successor to the Decca/Bonynge version in musical terms. Both sound and vision are good and although there is nothing else on the two discs, there is an informative booklet.

John Leeman

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