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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide - opera in two acts (1823)
Semiramide - Alex Penda (soprano)
Arsace - Marianna Pizzolato (alto)
Assur - Lorenzo Ragazzo (bass)
Idreno - John Osborn (tenor)
Oroe - Andrea Mastroni (bass)
Azema - Marija Jokovic (soprano)
Mitrane - Vassilis Kavayas (tenor)
Nino’s ghost - Raffaele Facciolà (bass)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań
Virtuosi Brunensis/Antonio Fogliani
rec. live, Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, July 2012, XXIV Rossini in Wildbad Festival
NAXOS 8.660340-42 [3 CDs: 73:40 + 70:44 + 77:20]

You wait decades for a new Semiramide then two come along at once! Hot on the heels of Dynamic’s release from De Vlaamse Oper comes this one, also recorded live, from the Rossini in Wildbad festival in 2012. There are a lot of good things about it, though it hasn’t altered my preferences and I think the Dynamic one is stronger.
Alex Penda is a very impressive Semiramide. Unusually for this role, her rich, lustrous vocal tone is more suited to the middle and bottom of the part, though that is not to undermine her security at the top. Her coloratura is very impressive and the distinctive colour of her voice stands out well in the ensembles. The opulence of her tone suits the role of the queen very well indeed, and lends an extra touch of class to her big set piece, Bel ragghio lusinghier. However, she seems a little afraid of really letting go in that aria, so that the coloratura feels rushed and it lacks the final edge of accuracy. She, therefore, has to give way to other Semiramides on disc, most recently Myrtò Papatanasiu in the Dynamic set, who is excellent in every way.
Marianna Pizzolato’s Arsace is a disappointment in comparison with Zedda’s Ann Hallenberg. Her tone is less distinctive and rather too throaty so that many of the words are obscured in her first aria. Nor is her coloratura as razor-sharp as that of her colleagues, though her ornamentations are appropriate and impressive, despite a needlessly high, out-of-the-blue conclusion to her first aria. However, she is no match for Penda’s Semiramide, meaning that in both their great duets Arsace sounds overwhelmed by the altogether more powerful presence of the queen, though the blend of voices is admittedly more convincing in their second duet than in their first.
Lorenzo Ragazzo is excellent as Assur. He is always lyrical and inherently musical, but he keeps just the right amount of darkness to his voice to remind us of the character’s villainy. He tears strips off Pizzolato in their duet and is every inch the equal of Penda in their great second act confrontation. This is, in fact, the highlight of the set, as the two finest performers in the cast square up to one another and, with a real chill of horror, remember the night of Ninio’s murder. He also sounds fantastic in his Act 2 mad scene, sailing close to the wind but succeeding thrillingly.
John Osborn, whose tenor I have often praised in these pages, is real luxury casting in the small role of Idreno. Including both of his oft-cut arias here makes eminent sense, and both are very impressive. He tosses off the leaps, runs and roulades as if it were all in a day’s work and the clean-ness of his tone is a joy to the ear. Andrea Mastroni is an authoritative and interesting presence as Oroe, and Marija Jokovic’s brief appearances as Azema are very attractive.
The orchestral playing is broadly very good, though the recording balance favours the singers against them so that often the inner textures aren’t particularly well brought out: a notable casualty of this is the all-important trombone line in the overture. Fogliani’s direction is broadly secure, though he pulls the tempo around a little disconcertingly in the overture.
On the whole, though, and despite some excellent individual contributions, this set hasn’t really changed my order of preferences for this opera - and which I mentioned here. In many ways it’s a shame that this one has to suffer from the comparison with Zedda’s recently arrived set - if Naxos had waited a little then the comparisons would have been less pronounced. However, the one advantage this one definitely has is price: it’s the cheapest Semiramide on the market and, therefore, the quality to price ratio is definitely high. No libretto in the booklet, though Naxos provide the Italian text online.
Simon Thompson