Semiramide, BBC Proms, Prom 68, Royal Albert Hall, 4 September 2016Posted on 5 September 2016
Based on a drama by Voltaire, this Rossini opera centres round the legendary if fictional Queen Semiramide (Semiramis) of Babylon, a source of endless fascination for Classical and Renaissance authors, who based their fables on Persian sources. The legend is derived from at least two Assyrian queens: Sammuramat (the origin of the name) in the late ninth century BC, and Naqia-Zaqutu in the seventh century BC, though an earlier claim that Sammuramat acted as queen in her own right before her son took the throne was based on a misunderstood text.
Voltaire and others had fun with the garbled history, the story being that Semiramide has murdered her husband King Nino, and attempted to murder her son Arsace, who survived and returns incognito 15 years later as commander of a frontier province. Among other characters Prince Assur, complicit in the murder of Nino and attempted murder of Arsace, has pretentions to the throne, and there are two further bass roles: a small one for King Nino’s ghost, like the ghost in Hamlet, and a more extensive one for the High Priest Oroe. An added complication is Princess Azema, the love interest of Arsace, Assur and an Indian king Idreno. Semiramide misinterprets Arsace’s feelings for Azema as love for herself, wishes to marry him and make him king, but although Arsace later realises his mother killed his father, filial love restrains his hand. Finally in the darkness surrounding King Nino’s tomb, guided by the gods to avenge his father’s death and urged on by Oroe and the ghost, Arsace strikes out at Assur, but kills his mother instead.
A terrific opera then — Rossini’s last in Italy before moving to Paris — but rarely staged. Its success demands top rate bel canto singers, particularly the soprano and mezzo (for the trouser role of Arsace), but here with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Mark Elder bringing out the original colours and rhythmical intensity of this wonderful music, and Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova giving extraordinary vocal depth and brilliance to the title role, this was an evening to remember. The beautiful joy she expressed in her first major aria, and the magnificent duet early in Act II with the excellent darkly toned bel canto of bass Mirco Palazzi as Assur were notable highlights.
In the hugely demanding role of Arsace, Daniela Barcellona gave an increasingly confident performance as the evening progressed, with warm support from Elder after a false and nervous start, and her big duet with the queen in Act II came over strongly. Fine emotional gravitas from Gianluca Buratto as the high priest, and James Platt’s excellent bass in the brief role of the ghost was complemented by his first dramatic appearance in the centre of the arena. Beautifully well-controlled singing from Barry Banks as Idreno, with brief but welcome appearances from Susana Gaspar as Azema and David Butt Philip as Captain of the Royal Guard.
The incisive power of the Opera Rara chorus infused events with dramatic intensity, before ending in very jolly style, rather like the dancing sequel to a Shakespeare play. I don’t know whether it’s true that the Royal Opera will stage this with Joyce DiDonato, but should she be unavailable they could hardly do better than Ms Shagimuratova.