Thursday 13 September 2018

Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara

Rossini: Semiramide - OPera Rara
Rossini Semiramide; Albina Shagimuratova, Daniela Barcellona, Mirco Palazzi, Barry Banks, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 September 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Rossini's monumental drama brought thrillingly, and complete, to disc with period style, bravura and elan

At the recent celebrations for the new distribution agreement between Opera Rara and Warner Classics, Sir Mark Elder (artistic director of Opera Rara) talked about his desire to take a title which was very familiar, yet the piece was not, and make people listen to it anew. This became Rossini's Semiramide, a work that existed for most people only as a title (or an overture), and Sir Mark pointed out that Dame Joan Sutherland's recording of the work was made 50 years ago, and lives in a very different sound world. We have already had something of a preview of Opera Rara's new recording of Rossini's Semiramide because Sir Mark and the cast performed the opera at the BBC Proms in 2016 just after doing the recording [see my review].

On this new set from Opera Rara we get the first ever complete recording of Rossini's Semiramide, performed on period instruments with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Opera Rara Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Albina Shagimuratova as Semiramide, Daniela Barcellona as Arsace, Mirco Palazzi as Assur, Barry Banks as Idreno, Gianluca Buratto as Oroe, Susana Gaspar as Azema, David Butt Philip as Mitrane and James Platt as L'Ombra di Nino.

Rossini's Semiramide was written in 1823 for performance in Venice, it was his last opera for Italy and his last serious opera in Italian (to follow were comedies in Italian and in French, and serious operas in French). Whilst it builds on the sequence of serious operas which Rossini wrote for Naples, it is also rather backward looking and eschews many of the technical and structural innovations which Rossini used in Naples. Perhaps because he was writing for a different company, perhaps because he deliberately wanted to have a summation, or perhaps because he could no longer rely on his prima donna. Semiramide was written for the soprano Isabella Colbran, who had been the diva in the remarkable sequence of nine operas written in Naples. But by 1823 her voice was in decline, and perhaps it was clear that Rossini could no longer rely on her in the way he had in Armida (where she was the only female member of cast) or Ermione (where her closing scene lasted over 40 minutes).

But there is no denying that Semiramide is super large scale, on this disc Act One lasts over two hours, with Act Two over ninety minutes. Even during the first run, the piece was being cut with the tenor soloist Idreno losing arias (something that would become quite common). In fact, this is not because Rossini crams a lot of musical number in, far from it, instead there is an amplitude to the pieces. There might be a backward-looking element to the opera with an old-fashioned sense of elaboration and display, but the way Rossini uses large-scale structures links to Neapolitan operas like Maometto II. And arias are quite sparing too, so that we get a lot of ensembles and duets, in fact the character of Semiramide is introduced via a quartet and she only gets one aria (labelled a cavatina) and we experience her mainly in relation to others via ensembles and duets.

Quite how different the sound world of this new disc can be is illustrated by the opening of the overture where the hand-stopped horns lift us into a different world, one which is re-inforced by the tang of the woodwind and the difference in sound lack of vibrato and gut strings makes to the strings. It helps that Mark Elder really brings out the varieties in texture of Rossini's orchestration and relishes the new sounds. The orchestra used is massive (74 players in the orchestra, plus a banda of 17), but despite this and the scale of Rossini's writing the music does not feel like a monument. There is a a dynamism and variety to the playing which makes it very engaging.

Elder does not shy away from the more problematic elements in the music, the jaunty sections are just that, jaunty, yet the moments of high drama are thrilling with orchestra and singers being encouraged to articulate the dramatic moments without going beyond the bounds of period style. So we have a recording of high contrasts, with the key moments such as the Act One finale, where Semiramide's announcement of her engagement to Arsace (to his and everyone else's surprise) is quickly followed by the thundering of the ghost of her late-husband.

Albina Shagimuratova makes a terrific Semiramide, by turns imperious and seductive, she aptly captures the characters variety. And this is combined with a secure technique, and the role has a wealth of ornament and elaborations, but Shagimuratova also shows a strong middle and lower register (by the time the opera was written Colbran's upper register was used sparingly).

Daniela Barcellona brings virtuoso bravura and a certain elan to the strange role of Arsace, initially Semiramide's love interest and then revealed to be her son (there are distinct pre-echoes of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia here with a similar murderous mother falling in love with her son). Barcellona is prime in this style of music and, apart from a couple of moments where she seemed pressed at the top, gives us some thrilling and stylistically brilliant moments

Crucial to the opera is are the two duets that Semiramide has with Arsace (Daniela Barcellona) and the duet with Assur (Mirco Palazzi), and perhaps here we see Rossini's response to Colbran's decline as the character is shown off in duet rather than solo. Instead of a final showpiece aria the character simply dies, and it is Assur who has the last aria as part of an extended mad scene. Shagimuratova and Barcellona had create a strong relationship, so that their duets together are some of the highlights of the disc, the singers showing themselves well able to cope with the technical demands of the music, using the music for expressive purposes. But that said, there was something simply magical in hearing Shagimuratova and Barcellona in elaborate roulades in thirds. Shagimuratova's duet with Mirco Palazzi's Assur is equally important, with both singers showing a fine command of dramatic coloratura in thrilling style.

Assur is the main villain of the piece and Palazzi does it in superb style, using his lovely dark voice with fluent flexibility in the bravura vocal writing. And he really comes into his own in Assur's final scene where his nightmare visions approach a mad scene and Rossini's vocal writing, particularly in the recitative, pointed the way for many developments in 19th century Italian opera. It is perhaps an indication of the opera's Janus-like stance that there is a traditional finale, given to a non-traditional character (i.e. not the heroine) and with moments which look forward. Whatever, in the hands of Palazzi, Elder and the orchestra this makes a superb climax.

The tenor role in the opera Idreno is just not on the same plane, he does not get the girl and rather disappears towards the end. But Barry Banks is impressive with the command of the role's taxing tessitura and gives a graceful account of Idreno's aria, when the character thinks he is going to get the girl. The girl in question, Azema, is reduced to a tiny role so that Susana Gaspar only gets a few lines of recitative.

James Platt thunders wonderfully as the ghost of Semiramide's murdered husband, Nino, whilst the other supporting roles are equally strong with Gianluca Buratto as Oroe and David Butt Philip as Mitrane. The large chorus gives us some thrilling moments, and really contributes to the drama.

Overall, Mark Elder has a fine control of the architecture of the piece. It runs without a feeling of languishing, and Elder uses his punchy instrumental sounds to make the piece really impulsive at times, so that the drama speeds by admirably. There is a super article in the booklet, really putting Semiramide into context.

Essential listening for everyone interested in Rossini, and I think essential for anyone interested in the development of 19th century Italian opera.

You can eavesdrop on the recording sessions with a pair of videos on YouTube (first video, second video

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) - Semiramide
Semiramide - Albina Shagimuratova
Arsace - Daniela Barcellona
Assur - Mirco Palazzi
Idreno - Barry Banks
Oroe - Gianluca Buratto
Azema - Susana Gaspar
Mitrane - David Butt Philip
L'Ombra di Nino - James Platt
Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded Henry Wood Hall, September 2016
OPERA RARA ORCD57 4CDs [66:18, 65:18, 63:16, 36:21]
Available from Amazon.

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