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
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
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
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
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
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