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8.660340-42 - ROSSINI, G.: Semiramide [Opera] (Penda, Pizzolato, Regazzo, Osborn, Mastroni, Fogliani)
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Melodramma tragico in Two Acts
Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, widow of King Nino – Alex Penda, Soprano
Rossini’s Musical Cathedral
With the triumphant successes which Rossini enjoyed in 1822 in Vienna, his international career had begun, and it resulted in plans to travel to both London and Paris. It is quite possible that Rossini regarded the contract negotiations which he conducted from Vienna with the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice as a temporary termination of his Italian career. On the return journey from Vienna to Bologna he wanted to discuss in person with the city theatre’s administration his requirements for the engagement of his wife Isabella Colbran as prima donna and for himself as both musical director of one of his earlier operas, as well as the composer of a new opera, for the 1823 Carnival season. On 13 August 1822 Rossini signed a contract, that today must be considered lost, but from which we know that, among other things, he allowed for the score of the new opera to be owned by the theatre. In the case of Zelmira, whose score Rossini regarded as his own property, he had tried to control directly the propagation of the work, while he himself brokered deals with theatres and publishers. With the contract for Semiramide Rossini rid himself of that complicated task while he relinquished to the commissioner from the start, and for a very high price, all the rights, and so stimulated the spread of his music.
Rossini summoned the librettist Gaetano Rossi to come to his estate at Castenaso, near Bologna, to start work in peace and quiet on the new opera on 9 October, which Rossini undertook with supreme mastery. The monumentality and perfection of the completed work show his genius at its creative peak.
The fact that with Semiramide, as with Rossini’s first opera for La Fenice, Tancredi of ten years earlier, Rossi again adapted a tragedy of Voltaire, might be a coincidence. Of greater significance was the fact that Isabella Colbran, who was to sing the title-rôle, had already interpreted the character of the Assyrian queen many times in her career in other settings of the work in operas by Portogallo, Nasolini and Mayr, Rossini relished the challenge of writing his own setting. Rossi and Rossini worked away on the new opera during the whole of October before they proceeded to Verona, where they were expected by Prince Metternich, to attend the Congress of the Holy Alliance and where they were to perform various cantatas and operas. From Verona they went straight to Venice, where the Rossinis arrived on 4 December 1822. Since Maometto II (Naples, 1820) (Naxos 8.660149–51), which, in a version with a happy ending opened the season, had been a flop, Rossini was also obliged at short notice to throw together a production of Ricciardo e Zoraide (Naples, 1818) for La Fenice.
Rehearsals for Semiramide got under way on 13 January 1823 and the opera had its première on 3 February, after which it was performed 28 times, up to 10 March. The high expectations of both public and press for the new opera by Rossini were largely satisfied, but the almost daily performances of this monumental work, of nearly four hours of music, and with its strenuous demands, subjected the singers to an almost too demanding tour de force. Some numbers were always left out (Idreno’s aria in Act I), or often (Arsace’s opening aria and his duettino with Semiramide), while others were shortened from time to time or omitted altogether according to the vocal condition of the singers. This resulted in the great displeasure of the public, so that the police, who feared for public order, intervened and, in some cases, against medical advice, compelled the singers to sing. Ever the pragmatist, Rossini allowed cuts, but when it came to the opera’s production in London he was adamant that it “…should be performed in its entirety, just as I wrote it for Venice”.
Rossini chose a subject whose roots went right back to ancient Greek tragedies and which gained currency in completely different embodiments in both theatre and melodrama. His librettist broadly followed the tragedy of Voltaire, who focussed the action on the atonement for a regicide and murder of a husband which had been committed fifteen years earlier. The guilt-laden Semiramide knows that she cannot escape the punishment of the gods, especially considering that her love for the young commander, which gives her new confidence, is unwittingly incestuous, if not actually consummated as she recognizes in him her own son, whom she believes to be dead. Her transformation into a loving mother will not save her from the mortal blow which her own son, against his will, will direct against her.
The character of the power-seeking Assur, who wishes to ascend to the throne by all available means and who knows love only as a means to an end, is considerably more one-dimensional. But even he acquires human traits, as when he almost loses his mind when confronted by the ghost of Nino. At first Arsace appears to us as a love-struck young man, but one who soon becomes acquainted with the serious side of life when he must obey the reasoning of the state and of God. When faced by the conflict of becoming the avenger of his father and thus unwittingly the murderer of his mother, his love for Azema is pushed completely into the background. But their love is never called into question, for everything in this plot is subject to divine predestination, so that Arsace-Ninia will marry the princess assigned to him at birth (which happens explicitly in the alternative version of the opera adapted in 1825 for Paris, when the dying Semiramide marries her son off to Azema). From a dramaturgical point of view his rival Idreno is completely expendable and his appearances in the opera are there solely to maintain the vocal and emotional balance. The fact that Arsace’s beloved, Azema, is so radically marginalized and has no musical numbers of her own, not even a meeting with Arsace, is in accordance with the pragmatism of Rossini who, with impressive consistency, eliminates everything which is not essential. One recognizes this pragmatism, so unintelligible to the Romantics, already from the comic opera L’Italiana in Algeri (Venice 1813), in which Rossini unceremoniously ditched a dramaturgically superfluous duet between the lovers Isabella and Lindoro.
Semiramide represents the monumental quintessence of a ten-year career in which Rossini drastically revitalized Italian melodrama. After his experimental Neapolitan operas in which he began to water down number operas with large-scale blocked scenes, Semiramide shows again a classical structure, in which the musical numbers are clearly separated from the recitatives, and this even though Rossini—for the first time outside Naples—wrote recitatives as fully and in an even more masterly way than before. The instrumental sophistication is apparent not only, as always with Rossini, in his delightful use of the wind instruments, but above all in a tapestry of sound which, with its often dark colouring of bass sounds, evokes the mysterious atmosphere of this opera. The choruses also contribute to this mood, and on dramaturgical grounds, as well as for reasons of sonority—especially in the mysterious choruses of the priests—Rossini favours the tenors and basses.
The ensemble numbers are confined to large blocks—the huge introduction (No 1) and the first finale (No 7) as its counterpart, as well as the second finale (No 13)—while otherwise six solo arias (two without, and four with choir: Nos 2 and 4, and Nos 5, 9, 10 and 12) and four duets (Nos 3, 6, 8 and 11) predominate. The three principal characters vie with each other in duets—one with the other, and then once again mother and son—in which all their emotions are given full expression; the three voices which dominate the opera—soprano (Semiramide), contralto (Arsace) and bass (Assur)—are first brought together in the second finale in the moving trio L’usato ardir. In this world of the ideal of beauty it goes without saying that the virile hero, Arsace, would be sung by a contralto voice, which in this still Baroque aesthetic would be considered neither more unnatural nor more disconcerting than if the rôle were performed by a man. The tenor (Idreno) functions only as vocal padding in the ensembles and with his two arias provides the protagonists with places to rest their voices. The use of coloratura as an expressive device assumes considerable prominence, and it leads to a dynamism never before heard while at the same time conveying a dramatic truth with no hint of contrivance. The throbbing of the voices becomes an all-encompassing language for the expression of feelings such as joy, fear, desire, rage, despair and hope. By means of this stylistic device Rossini succeeds in elevating his characters, without any reduction in the drama, into the realms of sublimity and thereby brings bel canto to its perfect expression. When Rodolfo Celletti declared Semiramide to be the last and most beautiful Baroque opera, one must add that it is far more than that, namely the summation of bel canto as a blend of truth and art. At the same time Rossini also succeeds in pointing the way far into the future with one particular verismo scene, Assur’s mad scene (No 12), whose angst-filled, faltering and beseeching declamation adopts an expression which is completely realistic and is far removed from a virtuoso sphere of art and which for instance must have influenced even Verdi in his Macbeth.
Apart from Guillaume Tell (1829) which, because of the demands made on it by the Paris Opera house, was subject to its own laws and dimensions, Semiramide is Rossini’s longest opera. It boasts almost four hours of music and the first act alone, at over two hours in length, is probably the longest in the history of opera. Yet the opera itself has only thirteen numbers and an overture. Already in his previous operas, especially Maometto II and Matilde di Shabran, it was apparent (and in Il viaggio a Reims confirmed) how Rossini obeys strict formal principles, while his style of composition, based on a combination of elements, involves a command of large-scale structures which allows for no half measures. To leave out individual sections or cut them drastically not only upsets the aesthetic but jeopardizes the entire edifice. It is only in the completely uncut version (as presented here) that the Rossinian cathedral is revealed in all its breathtaking grandeur and with all its fascinating alcoves and arabesques.
The magnificent temple of Bel.
 Oroe, High Priest of the Magi, receives the vision of the Babylonian deity in the sanctuary and awaits the moment of justice and revenge.
 The high officials and the people pour into the temple and sing praises to Bel. The peoples from all of Assyria have come to Babylon to witness the nomination of a new heir to the throne.
 The Indian prince Idreno hopes for his love to be fulfilled. Assur, the chief satrap, blatantly craves to succeed Nino, the late husband of Semiramide. Oroe is enraged.
 The people celebrate the arrival of the queen.
 They all place their hope in her, while she hides her uncertainty.
 Assur demands that she appoint Nino’s successor. Semiramide hesitates; she realizes that someone is missing from among those present. At the very moment that she calls out the name of her husband, the sacred flame in the altar is suddenly extinguished. To general consternation, the crowds disperse.
 Oroe explains that the wrath of heaven has to do with unexpiated wrong-doings. The choice of successor can follow only when the oracle of Memphis has been delivered. While Semiramide secretly hopes for Arsace’s return, Idreno and Assur affirm their wishes. Oroe knows the justice of the gods and fears for Semiramide’s fate.
 Arsace, carrying a casket, appears in front of the temple; at last he is in Babylon. His dying father, Fradate, has sent him to the Temple of Bel. A secret order of Semiramide has summoned him to her court, and in the hope of seeing again his beloved Azema, he has rushed there.
 Emotionally he recalls the day when he saved her from bandits and love changed his life.
 Oroe approaches him and Arsace gives him the casket. Oroe takes from it the scroll which the dying Nino had written, as well as his crown and his sword. Arsace discovers that Nino was poisoned. As Assur approaches, Oroe withdraws. Assur reproaches the young captain for having deserted his troops without his permission. Arsace refers to the queen’s command and to his love for Azema. Assur explains to him that the princess was promised from birth to Ninia. But Arsace knows that Ninia is dead and that Azema loves him.
 Arsace knows what love is, whereas Assur is interested only in the throne. Assur replies haughtily that a Scythian could not harm a demi-god. He threatens Arsace with his power and with his impending royal dignity.
 Arsace is sure of Azema’s love for him and will never accept Assur as king.
 Both are certain of victory and part company, each issuing threats to the other.
A vestibule in the palace.
 Azema is overjoyed to have learned of Arsace’s return. Idreno arrives and importunes her with his protestations of love. His fear of having Assur as a rival proves to be unfounded, since Azema detests Assur.
 Idreno plucks up courage to punish his rival’s audacity. He hopes that Azema’s heart might still be there to be won and assures her of his unconditional love for her.
 Azema is impressed with Idreno’s declaration of love and acknowledges to herself that she could love him, were it not that all her feelings were for Arsace and that he would be worthy of her.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
 Girls and cithara players try to cheer up the despondent Semiramide. They predict the joys of love for her, now that Arsace has returned. The queen has a ray of hope.
 In anticipation of the commander’s arrival she forgets her troubles and looks forward to a moment of joy and love.
 Mitrane delivers the oracle. Semiramide interprets the prophecy that with Arsace’s return and a new marriage her troubles will be over, in fulfilment of her wish. She assigns Mitrane to prepare the wedding festivities and to summon the people once more. Full of hope, Arsace approaches the queen. He confesses to her that he does not wish to serve Assur. Arsace is delighted to learn from Semiramide that she will not grant the princess’s hand to Assur.
 She promises him the supreme reward if he remains true to his feelings. Arsace confesses that he is consumed by love.
 They both indulge in scenes of sweetest bliss.
 Assur is surprised to meet Oroe once again in the palace after fifteen years. Oroe reminds him of the reason for his retreat into the temple on that terrible night when the hand of death deprived Assyria of its good king and his successor, Ninia. Assur quickly changes the subject and comes to speak to Arsace. He warns him and his allies against contesting the throne with him. Oroe, left alone, foresees that the wicked Assur will be punished.
A glorious location in the palace with a view over Babylon. The throne is on the right. On the left is the antechamber in front of the mausoleum of King Nino.
 The entire royal household and the people have gathered in the palace. The priests and people celebrate in song this great day when Assyria is to have a new king.
 Semiramide requests that all swear to respect her decision.
 Then, to general surprise, she declares that he who will be the new king will also be her consort, namely Arsace. Assur is outraged at the choice of a Scythian, Idreno asks for the hand of Azema and Semiramide promises her to him. Arsace explains that he had hoped for something other than the throne from her. She has hardly confirmed that through him she will give Assyria back to Nino and his son than the earth begins to shake.
 A pitiful lament rises from the mausoleum, leaving everyone petrified.
 To general consternation Nino’s ghost emerges from the depths of the tomb. The ghost declares that Arsace shall reign but that first he must offer up a sacrifice to his grave. From Semiramide, who wants to follow him into the grave, the ghost commands respect: if the gods so wish it he will call her to him. As the ghost withdraws back into the grave and the tomb closes, the horrified crowd asks about the reason for the divine wrath.
 Mitrane instructs Arbate, head of the royal guard, to keep Assur under surveillance. He informs Semiramide that Assur refuses to obey her command to leave the court. Then Assur stands up to the queen and reminds her of her earlier promise. Semiramide shudders and asks him whether he, who poisoned the king, is not afraid of the ghost of Nino. She counters his accusation—that it was she who had prepared the poison—with his guile. She believes that Assur is also responsible for the death of her son.
 Semiramide threatens Assur with death, while he threatens her with the disclosure of the murder of her husband.
 Both remain lost in thought at the constant pursuit by ghosts since that night of death. But Semiramide takes heart and counts on the protection of Arsace.
 Ceremonial music in the background celebrates her betrothed, the new king. Semiramide sees Assur fall, but he reasserts that he will not give up without having his revenge.
Inside the sanctuary.
 Oroe and the Magi prepare Arsace for his big moment.
 He is ready to accept his fate. Oroe has the relics of Nino brought in, places the crown on Arsace’s head and reveals to him that he is none other than Ninia himself—everyone had thought he was Fradate’s son who in fact was long since dead. From the words which the dying Nino was able to write down, Arsace-Ninia learns that Assur and his own mother Semiramide were the murderers of his father.
 Horrified, he falls into Oroe’s arms. Oroe and the Magi ask him to administer the required act of revenge and hand him the sword.
 Arsace presses for Assur to be killed, while hoping that Nino and the gods will pardon his mother.
 Mitrane tries to comfort Azema. She is complaining about Semiramide, who has taken from her Arsace, her all. Idreno arrives and is surprised at this revelation, but counts on Azema’s hand and hopes for her heart.
 Assisted by the Indians and the bridesmaids, Idreno encourages the princess to approach the altar, where Semiramide too looks forward to joy and love.
 Semiramide follows Arsace, who tries to evade her. She demands to see the scroll which he is looking at. Horrified, she realizes on reading it that the young man whom she loves, is her son and that he knows that she murdered her husband.
 Semiramide orders her son to kill his guilt-ridden mother. But Arsace himself wants to take on all the wrath of the gods.
 Overcome with emotion, mother and son embrace: at this moment of horror and happiness they at least find mutual comfort. But Arsace wants to follow his father’s orders; Semiramide knows that blood will flow, while Arsace hopes for the benevolence of the gods.
A private area of the palace, by the tomb of King Nino.
 Assur is bent on revenge. He wants to send his rival to the grave into which he has already despatched Nino.
 Then his men report that Oroe has thwarted the people’s insurrection and that Assur has lost any hope of acceding to the throne: from the next day Arsace will rule. But Assur will not give in. He intends to climb down into the sepulchre by a secret route in order to kill Arsace there. But suddenly he thinks he has come face to face with Nino’s ghost, whose iron hand blocks his path and threatens to pitch him down into the abyss. Crazed, he begs for mercy.
 The Satraps do not understand his behaviour but finally bring him round. Assur realizes that he has been scared by a vision. With renewed courage he explains that his strong mind will triumph over the gods and over death.
 Mitrane has learnt that Assur will not shy away from profaning the sanctity of the mausoleum and orders Arbate and his guards to surround it; in the meantime he will warn the queen.
An underground vault in Nino’s mausoleum. In the middle is the sarcophagus of Nino.
 The Magi place themselves in the burial vault in order to apprehend the traitor. Oroe accompanies Arsace, who is troubled by oppressive forebodings, into the gloomy tomb and asks him to think only about his sword thrust; the sacrifice will be supplied for him by God. Arsace boldly tells himself that Assur will become the sacrifice; he disappears into the gloom. Meanwhile Assur wanders about looking for Arsace. Semiramide too has climbed down into the vault in order to protect her son.
 In a prayer at Nino’s grave she begs her husband for help for their son and forgiveness for herself. Without noticing one another, all three are filled with fear and trepidation. Then a voice cries out with the order: “Ninia, stab!”
 While the surprised Assur looks for Arsace, Arsace strikes out in the belief that his rival is in front of him, but he stabs instead his mother who has hurried down to protect him. Oroe summons the Magi and the guards, has Assur arrested for the murder of Nino and proclaims Arsace as Ninia and King of Assyria. More than the death penalty, Assur must recognize his rival as the rightful king. But there still remains something to give Assur satisfaction: behind the grave he catches sight of the dead Semiramide and remarks maliciously that Arsace has murdered his own mother. In his despair Arsace tries to take his own life but is prevented from doing so by Oroe. All present acclaim him as their new king and invite him to forget his anguish and to make Assyria happy.
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