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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide - an opera in two acts (1823)
Semiramide - Myrtò Papatanasiu (soprano)
Arsace - Ann Hallenberg (mezzo)
Assur - Josef Wagner (bass)
Idreno - Robert McPherson (tenor)
Oroe - Igor Bakan (bass)
Azema - Julianne Geerhart (soprano)
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Vlaamse Opera Antwerp-Ghent/Alberto Zedda
rec. live, Vlaamse Opera, Ghent, 11 January 2011
DYNAMIC CDS 674/1-3 [3 CDs: 74:04 + 76:11 + 79:17]

The Vlaamse Opera brought this production of Semiramide to the Edinburgh Festival in 2011. That was seven months after this live recording was made in Ghent and the cast was identical except for the part of Arsace. The production was a stinker of the worst order, but I said at the time that the musical values were tremendous. One of the merits of a CD release like this is that you don’t need to worry about the nonsense on stage but can concentrate on what you hear. Listening to these discs confirmed my impression that what I had heard was very good indeed.
The greatest star of the recording is Alberto Zedda himself, the most experienced Rossini conductor around at the minute. He opts for the completely complete version of the opera but the tempo never flags, nor does the sense of dramatic impetus. Instead, the piece seems to become imbued with an almost Wagnerian sense of epic sweep that I found very compelling. That is thanks to the conductor’s ear for architecture and skill in pacing. Even the - often omitted - scenes for Idreno and Azema take their place in an overall dramatic conception that I found very convincing.
The set is led by a truly fantastic Semiramide from Myrtò Papatanasiu, not a soprano I had ever come across before that evening in the theatre, but one I have certainly been looking out for since. Her command of the role is exceptional, showing compelling technique, arresting stage presence and glowingly beautiful voice. Listening to the way she cuts through the crowd in the first scene's ensemble should be enough to silence anyone who claims that we don't have the singers for this repertoire any more. She rises with great and justified assurance to the challenge of the big moments, nowhere more impressively than in Bel raggio lusinghier which is sung with total confidence and utter vocal security. OK, she may not have the opulence of, say, Joan Sutherland, but she shows that there is another way of doing it which is equally valid, and her ornamentations are sensitive, intelligent and imposing. Her injunction to the assembled crowd to obey her choice of successor is extremely impressive. She unquestionably has the proper equipment for the role and deserves to be heard.
Every bit as good is the exceptional Arsace of Ann Hallenberg. Perhaps even more than Papatanasiu, she has the full measure of the bel canto style and technique required to succeed in this sort of repertoire. Her entrance aria is full of the right balance of pathos and ardour. The ensuing cabaletta shows rock-solid coloratura technique that puts her comfortably in the company of some of the very best interpreters of the role. Due to the quality of these protagonists, the duets between Semiramide and Arsace are among the highlights of the set, especially their first one where the two voices both set out their stall, so to speak, before slotting together and fitting like two pieces tailor-made for one another. Fantastic. Julianne Geerhart has a brighter, purer, more innocent-sounding soprano than the other ladies in the cast. This sets her character apart very successfully, even though she has very little to do.
What of the men? Unlike in the theatre Josef Wagner’s Assur struggles a little more with the quick-fire moments of the coloratura. He is a little undone by the lowest elements of the role, but he has a commanding tone that is pleasant to listen to. He also rises very impressively to his great second act aria. Igor Bakan’s Oroe oozes vocal authority and sheer presence. The tenor of Robert McPherson may be a little nasal, but his technique is hearteningly secure and the extent of his range is remarkable. There’s never a hint of trouble in Rossini's oft-called-for stratospheric high notes. Importantly, he also adds a distinctive splash of colour to the ensembles. Only the tiny part of Ninio's ghost is pretty underwhelming, lacking gravitas and weight, but I remember that the stage production totally blew this moment, so perhaps it's a part of the package.
The recording is very flattering to the sound. Everything is clear and distinct, and the balance between the singers and the orchestra is very well judged indeed. Nor is there any cloudiness in the big choral scenes, though there is a tiny hint of “flicker” between the two channels during Arsace’s scene in the monument at the end of Act 2. In the past I have criticised Dynamic's engineers for tinny or inappropriate sound. Here I'm pleased to report that, on the whole, they pass the test admirably. There is no libretto, but it can be found online here.
Regrettably, there is very little choice for Semiramide on CD which is a shame because it is surely Rossini’s greatest Italian opera. The only other easily accessible version is Richard Bonynge’s famous London Symphony Orchestra recording of 1966 (Decca 475 7918), which features the incomparable team of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne on outstanding form. The quality of the singing is surely more luxurious than on this Dynamic set, but Zedda’s recording has the edge when it comes to drama and, again, the sense of epic sweep that the finest readings of this opera convey. It doesn’t help that Bonynge’s recording is cut, but that’s not the only factor. It’s a real shame the Ion Marin’s recording (Deutsche Grammophon 437 797-2), also with the LSO, is no longer available. It features a top-notch quartet of Studer, Larmore, Ramey and Lopardo and is surely a prime candidate for re-release. Equally worthy is Zedda’s other live recording (Ricordi/Fonit Cetra RFCD 2018), this time from Pesaro in 1992. It features Iano Tamar, Gloria Scalchi, Michele Pertusi, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and Gregory Kunde but is almost impossible to come by outside second-hand shops. This Dynamic release will do very nicely, thank-you. It’s a dramatic, incisive and exciting take on a wonderful opera, and it deserves to be heard.
Simon Thompson