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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Who would have expected to see Bonynge conducting a new recording on Naxos? But he is directing a first recording of a recently rediscovered score, not a masterpiece by any means, but agreeable enough. Deborah Riedel is impressive in the title-role, in vocal partnership with Fiona James as Prince Scitalce, while her other suitor, Prince Ircano (Filippo Adami), sings ardently enough. The rest of the cast are sound, and Bonynge, as is his gift, keeps the pot on the boil throughout, and gets good support from the men’s chorus. A worthwhile novelty, competitively priced.



Parsons
American Record Guide, February 2007

Semiramide may seem like an odd choice of a Meyerbeer opera to record. It is not at all typical of the better known operas (L 'Africaine, Les Huguenots, Le Prophete). Semiramide is a historical curiosity. The title makes us think of Rossini's 1824 opera, but Meyerbeer's 1819 opera is quite different-in libretto and music. Rossini's opera is based on Voltaire's retelling of the death of Semiramide. Meyerbeer's is based on the 1729 libretto written by Pietro Metastasio- a libretto that was set to music by at least 40 composers in the 1700s. Instead of her death, it relates Semiramide's triumph. Meyerbeer's was the last setting of Metastasio's libretto. It contained 30 arias along with appropriate recitatives. By Meyerbeer's time the libretto had been adapted: the arias cut down and duets, ensembles, and an all-male chorus added. Recitatives were cut wholesale. Meyerbeer's opera is now classical in shape with arias as closed numbers, recitatives accompanied by the harpsichord separating the arias, though recitatives introducing the musical numbers are accompanied by strings.

Three principals dominate the story: Semiramide, a soprano, is disguised as a man, passing herself as her son, Nino. Scitalee is an Indian prince who was Semiramide's lover, but is now a suitor for Tamiri, princess of Bactria. This is a travesti role for a contralto, a woman playing a man. The Scythian prince, Ircano, is a tenor and is another suitor for Tamiri. Three secondary characters complicate the story. Mirto, an Egyptian prince (bass), is Semiramide's younger brother and also in love with Tamiri. Tamiri (soprano) is in love with Scitalce; Sibari (tenor), Semiramide's confidant, is secretly in love with Tamiri also. Suffice it to say, it all works out well in the opera's grand finale.

This is early Meyerbeer. He was in Italy studying classic Italian opera and in Semiramide he tries his hand at the style. He got it all right the first time, particularly the tunes. No wonder that Semiramide was chosen for production at the Bel Canto Opera Festival (Rossini Festival) at Bad Wildbad, Germany. This is grandiose Rossini mixed in with grandiose Meyerbeer with lots of pep and drive.

Who cares about the plot? It would seem that the Naxos cast does! They are not just sleepwalking through an obscure opera, but actually having a fine time. They sing up the proverbial storm. Semiramide sounds like a sketch for Verdi's Abigaille (Nabucco) with some of the vocal difficulties toned down. Riedel has no difficulty, her mezzo-based voice zipping through the music with plenty of venom, only rarely emitting a chicken-like squawk. She is quite regal. Riedel actually has a darker sound than mezzo Fiona Jones (Scitalce). Jones's lovely voice coloring is right for her to sing Semiramide, but she does not have the heft that Riedel brings to the role. Adami sounds truly Italian, with a plaintive whimper to his tenor in the coloratura. The much-desired Tamiri (Peretyatko) chirps brightly. It is a particular pleasure to hear Silva (Sibari) spitting out the text with brilliant clarity. Gierlach (Mirteo) does not have much to do other than belting out an occasional interjection and heading up the men's chorus. With Bonynge on the podium the musical values and style are high. The opera and the performance are a real discovery



John T. Hughes
International Record Review, December 2006

'This version incorporates a number of cuts and revisions made to suit the vocal talents of the cast involved.' Thus runs a sentence in the booklet. It refers not to a performance in the opera's early days but to the present undertaking, based on a manuscript copy rather tahn Meyerbeer's autograph score, now lost. It is an old practice, time-honoured. Naxos issues the first recording of a rarity. Meyerbeer's setting of Metastasio's libretto was premiered in 1819, with revivals in 1820 under the title Semiramide riconosciuta. The new music for those revivals is also lost.

Everyone except Sibari has at least one aria, and many duests and ensembles are included, as one would expect in an Italian opera of its period. The chorus, male only, interjects in places but has no item to itself. I enjoyed this performance, which, under Richarg Bonynge's experienced direction, goes well: lively and vigorous. Bonynge works with his singers, so nobody seems pushed but a brio and buoyancy can be felt.

There are so many twists and turns to the story. Many years after Semiramide's departure from Egypt, some characters recognize others, but others fail to recognize some. There is a happy end for most of them. Tamiri is one such. She is the daughter of the King of Bactria. and is being wooed by three suitors: Scitalce, Ircano and Mirteo. She is sung in lucent tones by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, with the freshness of youth. Eventually, Tamiri chooses one of the three. Her complications are minor compared with those of Semiramide, who is ruling Assyria under the guise of being her own son, but other problems confront her too (no Oedipus complex I hope). One is the reapperance og Scitalce, who had tried to kill her in Egypt because he thought she was unfaithful to him.

Scitalce is a a breeches role, taken here with liveliness by Fiona Jones, who encompasses the difficulties of her part without the effort of being obvious. Its tessitura is, as Marco Beghelli points out in his note, very similar to Semiramide's: Jane is a mezzo who, as Scitalce, has to go high; Semiramide is a soprano role which spends much time in the lower middle of its exponent's range. Some thinness touches Jane's tone occasionally but soon goes.

The second of Tamiri's admirers, Ircano, is a tenor with many intricate runs and florid passages - enough to match some of Rossini's creations. The young Italian Filippo Adami earns respect, even if his tone is not the most honeyed. He ripples up and down the scales without aspirating, but at times his voice exhibits a throaty quality or an openness that is somewhat 'yowlly'. The third suitor, Mirteo, is Wojtek Gielach, possessor of a smooth easy bass, well focused.

Deborah Riedel, Australian like Bonynge and Janes, makes a human figure of Semiramide, who throughout is fearful of being exposed by Scitalce or Sibari, the latter having lied to Scitalce about Semiramide's constancy. The two men recognize the queen, but her brother Mirteo does not. Riedel has the vocal virtuosity to dispatch her roulades with relative ease and a voice so strong enough to deliver the histrionic aspects of the role. Sometimes a very slight rawness hints that time does not hang around, but it does not hinder her performance. She and Janes combine well in their splendid duet in Act 1 and she acquits herself with distinction in Semiramide's big scene before the people ner the end of Act 2.

There is again reverberation, as in Naxos's recording of Torvaldo e Dorliska (reviewed last month), but it is less intrusive here. Was there better placing of microphones? If the booklet is to include photographs, they should be captioned.




David L. Kirk
Fanfare, November 2006

Meyerbeer’s operas…it’s a special treat to have Semiramide added to the catalog.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.



Patrick O'Connor
Gramophone, October 2006

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Robert_Hugill
MusicWeb International, August 2006

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 acclaimed Queen.

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 in love.

Meyerbeer’s Semiramide 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 music requires.

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 in 1819.

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 Opera Rara.

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. 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 it.






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8:56:35 AM, 22 December 2014
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