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8.660205-06 - MEYERBEER: Semiramide
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Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)

Libretto: Anonymous, after Pietro Metastasio's Semiramide riconosciuta

Semiramide - Deborah Riedel, Soprano
Ircano - Filippo Adami, Tenor
Scitalce - Fiona Janes, Mezzo-soprano
Mirteo - Wojtek Gierlach, Bass
Tamiri - Olga Peretyatko, Soprano
Sibari - Leonardo Silva, Tenor

Marco Bellei, Harpsichord
Altensteig Rossini Choir [Chorus masters: Hans-Jörg Kalmbach and Matthias Wurster]
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra
Richard Bonynge

Critical edition by Marco Beghelli and Stefano Piana, with the collaboration of students of musicology from Bologna University – alma mater studiorum



Mention the name Semiramide to today's opera-lovers, and their thoughts will immediately turn to a score: that of Rossini. Not so in the late 1700s, however, when for theatre-goers it would have brought to mind a libretto: that of Metastasio.

In the eighteenth century the concept of a stable repertory of operatic works that would be performed year after year, on stages around the world, had not yet been established. There was, however, a repertory of successful librettos that were set time and again by different composers across the decades. The most influential librettist of the time was Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), whose best-known works (from Didone abbandonata to L'Olimpiade, Artaserse to La clemenza di Tito) were set by dozens of composers well into the nineteenth century, long after the poet himself had died. The aria texts were often altered, the musical structures updated to include more and more ensemble pieces, almost entirely absent from the early-eighteenth-century originals, but his recitatives remained intact, apart from an occasional cut, as did, therefore, the plot of the opera, with the sophisticated dialectical relationships that Metastasio's characters create between one another through the dialogues that separate one aria from the next.

The libretto for Semiramide, written in 1729, was set around forty times during the 1700s, until it was overtaken in popularity at the end of the eighteenth century by the story of Voltaire's tragedy Sémiramis (1748), which covers the final hours of the Assyrian queen's life rather than her moment of triumph, as in Metastasio's telling. Rossini's opera is based on the Voltaire, and is therefore quite different from earlier settings by Hasse, Vivaldi, Gluck or Salieri, all composed on Metastasio's libretto.

In 1819, however, just four years before Rossini's Semiramide had its première, a young German composer, who had moved to Italy to study the intricacies of Italian opera, was working on what would be the final setting of Metastasio's then ninety-year-old libretto. That composer was Giacomo Meyerbeer, destined to become one of the nineteenth century's most renowned composers of French grand opera. At this point he was at the start of his career, although he was also said to be so rich that he could give his scores to opera houses free of charge.

The prevailing political spirit in 1819 in Turin, as in the rest of continental Europe, was one of Restoration; the Congress of Vienna had just taken place and had ratified the return to their respective thrones of various deposed ruling families, in an attempt to establish a new balance of power in post-Napoleonic Europe. Staging new productions of works by Metastasio, official poet of the imperial Viennese court for many years, as if the French Revolution had never taken place, was, therefore, an artistic reflection of the political conservatism of the time. A number of significant Metastasian revivals took place in Turin over the next few years: in 1824 there was a production of Demetrio with music by Simone Mayr, while Vincenzo Bellini would recall that “Turin's librettos are by a certain Count whose name I do not know and who is fiddling with the works of Metastasio, such as Didone or Ezio for Mercadante”. It was Count Lodovico Piossasco Feys who prepared librettos for Mercadante, and although there is no documentary source to confirm it, it seems likely that it was he, rather than Gaetano Rossi, as today's encyclopedias claim, who also worked on Semiramide for Meyerbeer.

Feys, then, played exactly the same rôle as Caterino Mazzolà, to name but one, when he adapted Metastasio's La clemenza di Tito for Mozart. While in the days of Leonardo Vinci and Nicola Porpora, the first to set Semiramide, both in 1729, the opera consisted of around thirty arias alternating with long dialogues, by Meyerbeer's time solo arias had to be complemented by duets, musical confrontations between the protagonists, and ensemble numbers complete with chorus to mark key moments in the opera, especially the first-act Introduction and Finale: traditionally the two longest and most complex sections of the score. The poet's long recitatives therefore had to be reduced to a minimum, original arias substituted by others written in line with new trends, and appropriate points identified at which to insert ensemble numbers and choral parts.

The opera that emerged from this process is divided on classical lines into closed numbers. The recitatives that separate one from another are secchi (accompanied by the harpsichord, rather than the orchestra), but almost all the musical numbers are then introduced by recitatives of varying length accompanied by the strings. The chorus has no number all to itself, but it plays a part in all the ensemble pieces and in many of the arias. (The chorus incidentally is male-voice only, as was still the custom in many Italian opera houses at the time.)

There are three principal rôles: the Assyrian queen Semiramide (soprano; dressed as a man throughout, because she is passing herself off as her son, Nino); the Indian prince Scitalce (a travesti rôle for contralto; Scitalce was Semiramide's lover and is now a suitor for Tamiri, princess of Bactria); and the Scythian prince Ircano (tenor; another contender for Tamiri's hand). In addition to these there are three secondary characters: the Egyptian prince Mirteo (bass; Semiramide's younger brother and also in love with Tamiri); Tamiri herself (soprano; in love with Scitalce); and Sibari (tenor; Semiramide's confidant and secretly in love with her).

The main rôles are characterized by great vocal virtuosity, having been written for three of the most talented singers of the day: respectively, Carolina Bassi, Adelaide Dalmani Naldi and Claudio Bonoldi. All were extremely experienced in the Rossinian repertoire and noted for their dark-toned voices. Bonoldi was principally a baritone, while Bassi sang contralto as well as soprano parts. Meyerbeer wrote what was essentially a mezzo rôle for her: only in the rondo finale does it encompass the higher notes (top A flat and B flat), at the point when the character drops her male disguise and reveals herself to be a woman. This makes for an unusual relationship with the other female voice (traditionally a mezzo–contralto) in the trouser rôle of Scitalce, to the point that for much of the opera the audience is led to believe (visually as well as aurally) that this, exceptionally, is an opera with two breeches parts. The two rôles are vocally similar, and their interchangeability is made explicit by Meyerbeer in the duets: in the first, Semiramide takes the higher line, in the second, Scitalce.

Although the Semiramide of Meyerbeer and that of Rossini tell two completely different stories, from the stylistic-musical point of view, it is possible to draw more comparisons between them than it is, for example, between Rossini and Verdi's Otellos. Both scores are characterized by a kind of grandiloquence required by the subject matter, with its series of royals appearing in scene after scene; and this grandeur is evident in both the high-flown musical language of the protagonists, which is heightened by the virtuosity of the vocal writing, and the sheer dimensions of the numbers, reaching a peak in both operas in a first-act finale of extraordinary proportions.

When we come to the opening scenes of the two works, however, similarities simply abound. In 1822 the librettist Gaetano Rossi, who was staying in Rossini's country house outside Bologna and working in collaboration with the composer on the libretto for the new Semiramide, sent a letter to his friend Meyerbeer, telling him how the work was going. Among other things, he wrote, “I have written an Introduzione à la Meyerbeer: even la Colbran [Isabella Colbran, who sang the title-rôle] appears in the Introduzione: it is an imposing scene, full of pomp”. The fact that Rossi refers to Meyerbeer's Introduzione would seem to point to the series of affinities, from the dramatic material to the formal architecture: both operas open with a grandiose court scene, in which a number of regal personages from neighbouring countries appear to claim the hand of a royal bride; this is then interrupted by a supernatural event (in the shape of thunder and lightning) that throws everyone into panic; in both cases we have the exceptional sight of the central character appearing on stage at the very beginning of the opera, as mentioned by Rossi in the letter quoted, without the usual introductory cavatina: this is postponed in both operas and is in each case identifiable as a character piece: the Canzonetta con variazioni in the Meyerbeer, and “Bel raggio lusinghier” (identical in nature) in the Rossini.

When it opened in Turin at the Teatro Regio on 30th January 1819, Semiramide was a minor hit, and was well reviewed in the German press, which was more enthusiastic than its Italian counterpart. Meyerbeer dedicated his score to Carolina Bassi, and presented it to her, having apparently been particularly pleased with her performance. The following year the opera was staged in Bologna and Senigallia, now under the title Semiramide riconosciuta, some parts having been rewritten in collaboration with Rossi. All trace of the new music, however, has since been lost; the original version has survived in the form of a contemporary manuscript copy, Meyerbeer's autograph score having disappeared in Berlin during the Second World War.

There is no record of any productions of Semiramide after those mentioned above, until the first modern performance at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival in July 2005, during which this recording was made. This version incorporates a number of cuts and revisions made to suit the vocal talents of the cast involved.





Semiramis, daughter of the Egyptian king Vessore, fell in love with the Indian prince Scitalce when he came to the Egyptian court under the assumed name of Idreno. Vessore having refused to allow them to marry, Semiramis and Scitalce eloped. That very night, however, Scitalce received a letter from his supposed friend Sibari (in fact his rival) telling him that his lover had been unfaithful to him. Blinded by jealous fury, Scitalce stabbed her and left her body floating in the Nile.

Semiramis survived, although thereafter all believed her dead. She left Egypt and made the long and arduous journey to Babylon. There she met and married the king, Nino, and they had a son, also called Nino. After the death of her husband, Semiramis decided to take power by dressing as a man and passing herself off as the heir to the throne, while her son, brought up to be a weak young man, was kept hidden in the palace, dressed in women's clothing, and harbouring no desire to rule.

In the meantime, Mirteo, Semiramis's younger brother, was growing up in the court of the Bactrian king Zoroastro, and fell in love with the king's daughter and heir, Tamiri. Bactria was a tributary of Babylon, however, so Tamiri's husband had to be chosen by Nino's court. As the opera begins, the princess, now of marriageable age, has come to Babylon, where suitors from across the Orient are waiting to woo her.

[CD 1 / Track 1] Overture

Act One

[1/2] The scene is the portico of the royal palace on the banks of the Euphrates. On one side there is a throne, with a seat by its side for Tamiri. The altar in the middle has a statue of Baal, god of the Chaldeans. There is a great bridge, ships on the river and a military encampment visible on the further bank of the river. Priests and grandees of Babylon assemble, with Sibari, the confidant and secret lover of Semiramis, and then Semiramis herself. It is the day on which a husband will be chosen for Tamiri. Semiramis (believed by all to be her son Nino) presides as three princes are brought before her.

[1/3] Preceded by horsemen, who cross the bridge, a march is heard from the various guards as the Scythian Ircano, the Egyptian Mirteo and the Indian Scitalce disembark from their ships.

[1/4] Semiramis and Scitalce recognise each other, while Tamiri seems to have chosen Scitalce as her future husband. Both turn pale, but thunderclouds darken the sky and send all into panic.

[1/5] Tamiri favours Scitalce, but Semiramis takes advantage of this to defer the choice until after the banquet that evening. Once the guests have gone, she is left alone with Sibari, her confidant from her years in Egypt who has also come to court to mix with the Babylonian grandees. The two recognise one another and, after Semiramis has begged him not to divulge her secret, she tells him about the tragic events of fifteen years earlier, when Idreno tried to murder her, for reasons she has never been able to fathom. Sibari of course knows exactly what happened and why, and now awaits the best time to reveal his true feelings for her.

[1/6] The scene moves outside, to the city's fabled hanging gardens. Scitalce is lamenting the fact that he came to Babylon in hopes of finding happiness with Tamiri, but now the unexpected meeting with the woman he thought dead has reopened old wounds.

[1/7] He is joined by Sibari and the two recall their years of friendship in Egypt. Scitalce reveals to Sibari that he has recognised Nino to be Semiramis, the lover he believed he had killed after being told of her supposed infidelity in a letter written by Sibari, a letter he still has. This could incriminate Sibari with Mirteo, so both men agree to keep their respective secrets.

[1/8] Scitalce finally comes face to face with Semiramis. At first, the two exchange bitter words.

[1/9] Finally their feelings of love for one another begin to prevail, although they do not dare confess them openly.

[1/10] Meanwhile, rumours are spreading around the palace that Tamiri is going to choose Scitalce.

[1/11] Ircano and Mirteo therefore join forces to deal with their rival.

[1/12] Sibari too, however, has hatched a plan to poison Semiramis's former lover and leave the way open for his own desires. Evening comes, and the banquet is prepared in a brightly lit hall within the palace. Unseen, Sibari pours poison into the cup that will be taken by the chosen suitor, while Ircano appears on stage and pours out all the jealousy he feels towards Scitalce. Sibari calms him, disclosing his own true feelings: there will be no need for the sword he is brandishing, the poison Scitalce will drink unawares on being chosen by Tamiri will be enough.

[1/13] The hall fills up with courtiers and the feasting begins with dancing, and a song from Semiramis for the future bride and groom.

[1/14] She then invites Tamiri to give the ritual cup to her favoured suitor: this is Scitalce, yet he hesitates before drinking, trying to gauge Semiramis's reactions, and, finally, refuses the honour accorded him. All are stunned and demand an explanation, but Semiramis simply invites Tamiri to choose again. The cup is then placed before Ircano who, knowing what lethal concoction it contains, throws it to the ground, claiming that he will not lower himself to accept the woman rejected by his rival.

[1/15] This gesture rekindles the anger of all present towards Scitalce, until Tamiri declares that she will give her hand to whoever avenges the dishonour done her. Ircano offers himself as her champion, while Semiramis claims for herself the right to decide a just punishment for the offence against the princess under her protection.

[1/16] The act ends in an atmosphere of fear at this dreadful end to what should have been a joyful evening.

Act Two

[2/1] In an inner room, Tamiri tells Mirteo how much she esteems him.

[2/2] Yet she still loves Scitalce.

[2/3] Elsewhere, Sibari offers to help Ircano abduct Tamiri. Semiramis tries to find out whether Tamiri really loves Scitalce, then decides to speak to him alone herself. She offers him her love anew.

[2/4] Scitalce accuses her of past treachery, something she cannot understand.

[2/5] On the banks of the Euphrates, Ircano has gathered his fleet to carry out the planned abduction. The Scythian soldiers leave their ships and attack the Assyrian guards, but are defeated. It is Mirteo who comes face to face with the rebel prince: he has the better of him and disarms him.

[2/6] Ircano refuses to accept defeat and swears revenge as he is being led off to prison.

[2/7] Mirteo is joined by Sibari and thanks him for warning of Ircano's plot in good time. Sibari tells him that he has a greater rival, however, one who not only has designs on the woman he loves, but is the very traitor who, under the name of Idreno, abducted and murdered his sister, fifteen years ago in Egypt.

[2/8] Enraged, Mirteo now swears vengeance on Scitalce.

[2/9] In her apartments Semiramis confronts Ircano and orders him to leave Assyria immediately.

[2/10] He refuses to do so until he has been given the opportunity to face Scitalce.

[2/11] Mirteo too is seeking Scitalce, but Semiramis tells him to wait. She approaches Scitalce herself once again, hoping to find peace and love, and renews the offer of her hand. All she receives, however, is a flat refusal, without explanation. Despite this, she orders that he be set free.

[2/12] Mirteo finds Scitalce and is determined to avenge his sister's death: Scitalce promises him satisfaction, but in his heart knows that his strength of mind is gradually being undermined by an unknown fear.

[2/13] In an amphitheatre prepared for the occasion, everything is set for the duel to take place before the people of Babylon. Ircano arrives and breaks through the ranks of guards, demanding to be allowed to fight Scitalce and win Tamiri's hand. Semiramis reproaches him for having disobeyed her order to leave the city, and asks him what right he has to claim the princess now when he rejected her the day before. Ircano then confesses that he did not want to push Tamiri away, only the poisoned cup, thereby revealing Sibari's part in the affair. Semiramis defers passing judgement and calls for the duel to go ahead. Mirteo and Scitalce make their entry; Tamiri entreats Mirteo to abandon the contest, since she no longer wants vengeance for the wrongs done her, but he tells her that he is now fighting to avenge his sister's abduction and murder. Scitalce admits his guilt, but defends himself by producing Sibari's letter warning him that Semiramis had planned the elopement as a trap for Scitalce — he would be killed leaving her free to be with the man she really loved. Given this dramatic turn of events, Semiramis does not know what to do, fearing that if Sibari is given the chance to speak he will expose her. Therefore she decrees that he be taken away, but everyone else demands he stay and speak. Sibari then admits that the letter was a tissue of lies.

[2/14] Before he can finish his story and unveil Semiramis's disguise, she herself stands on her throne and reveals her true identity. She tells the crowd that she acted for the good of Assyria, ruling in place of a weak son who would have brought the kingdom to ruin; she, on the other hand, has in a few short years brought her country glory.

[2/15] If, however, her subjects are not prepared to recognise her as the best possible sovereign, she will give up the throne. Her people acclaim her as queen and she embraces her brother and her lover before asking the vengeful Ircano to show Sibari mercy.

[2/16] For her part, Tamiri grants Mirteo her hand, as he has so long hoped.

[2/17] The opera ends amid general rejoicing.

Marco Beghelli
English translation: Susannah Howe

The Italian libretto is available online at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/semiramide.htm

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