Of Rossini’s opera’s “Semiramide,” his final Italian work, is often considered one of his finest.
You probably would not draw that conclusion from the performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.
The opera, which tells the tale of the “battle” for the throne of Babylon in the wake of its fallen monarch Nino, is a rather long affair with a ton of characters and an expansive plot that relies heavily on strong direction both on the stage and in the pit.
The Met’s current revival, the first performance in 25 years, was lacking in both areas.
Let’s start on stage, where the biggest issues were to be witnessed. By now, most people know of the John Copley controversy that forced the director out in the middle of the production. One might argue that his absence left a gaping hole in the collective brain interpreting the work, but then that would call into question the directorial abilities of Roy Rallo, who is billed as the revival stage director.
You don’t need a great director to realize that if two characters are in conflict, they should probably not be standing on opposite sides of the stage and looking away from each other for a full five minute duet; this was the case in the scene in which Assur and Arsace, great rivals for the throne, face off for the first time. Why not have them pace around one another, their gazes locked throughout? That would hint at some tension. Other major dramatic moments were rendered incomprehensible by this kind of park and bark approach, such as the final trio, in which (SPOILERS) Arsace accidentally kills his mother in the dark tomb. The characters state that they can’t see in the darkness, but we don’t see it. They just stand there and when Arsace is asked to walk over and stab his mother, it lacks credibility. Why not have them walk around and through their body language create the sense of being lost so that the audience can truly believe that they have no idea where they are. As staged, Arsace looked purposeful in murdering his mother, which contradicts the intention of the actors.
It is also quite questionable why a massive set such as this one is often misused, the full depth often ignored by the performers, who tended to stay close to the prompter’s box. The chorus often walked onstage rather unceremoniously and then off. The sets themselves, by John Conklin, are massive and emphasize the broken state of Babylon through their cracked tiles. But it was hard to truly immerse oneself in the production when the curtains went up and down incomprehensibly throughout. When the curtains dropped, one imagined that some massive stage change was going on behind. But when they came back up, the sets were pretty much unchanged. They aided in the transitions from scene to scene but did little to enhance the drama and in some cases, distracted from the singing. One case in point would be during Idreno’s first aria, where the second half of the passage was met by a rising curtain to reveal the backdrop of the main set. What dramatic purpose did it serve? None that I could decipher. This occurred time and again throughout the opera, making one wonder, why not just leave them on the same stage the entire time without all this shifting around? Especially when the stage wasn’t really being used in any effective fashion to begin with?
Poor direction or clarity of vision in a production can be often overlooked in a bel canto work simply by showcasing great singing. One such example would be the Met’s “I Puritani” production, which is nothing special visually but has featured top-end artists over the years that make you forget about the production itself and surrender to the beauty of the music.
On paper, this “Semiramide” should have been otherworldly. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be with most of the artists seemingly miscast.
Nowhere was this more present than with Ildar Abdrazakov, who scored solid success with comic Rossini at the Met last season in “L’Italiana in Algeri.” But from his first entrance as Assur, you could tell this would not be the best of nights for the bass. The role’s opening passage for the bass demands a ton of coloratura passagework that is aimed at matching the previous vocal gymnastics of Idreno. It’s a voice face-off if you will, and Abdrazakov and his thicker bass, tasked with taking on a more flexible tenor in Javier Camarena, lost. The passages were labored and he often seemed like he was constantly playing catch-up with conductor Maurizio Benini, who conversely was looking to adjust with him from measure to measure. It wasn’t a comfortable listening experience and hinted at a long night.
That turned out to be true for Abdrazakov, as try as he might to give Assur aggressive qualities (he was undeniably at his best during the recitatives), couldn’t quite manage to find the flexibility or lightness in his voice for the surging Rossini vocal lines. And like his colleagues, this most committed of actors, didn’t do much in the way of interacting with them throughout the night.
Angela Meade is one of the mainstays at the Met over the last few years, getting opportunities to constantly diversify her repertoire. While Semiramide was a bold move, it might not have been for the best. Her coloratura didn’t always work, particularly in the second part of the aria “Bel Raggio Lusinghier.” No one expects vocal perfection at all times, but Meade smudged some of the runs rather noticeably and was even more uncomfortable in the phrasing of the cadenza, where she seems to have lost her vocal control. She did better in the repetition of the cabaletta section, though the high E that she added in didn’t quite sound comfortable either. Overall, she sang with elegant legato throughout, but for whatever reason, her top notes tended to sound shrill and often flat in their pitch, no doubt a result of a wide vibrato that is persistent in her voice. It works wonders in music that calls for explosive emotion, but in something more refined like Rossini, it often feels out of place. No doubt her instrument will be more effective in her assignment next season in Boito’s “Mefistofele.”
More Effective Singing
Camarena is one of the finest tenors in the world and he sang quite well on this evening, his two arias featuring blossoming vocal lines, confident top notes, and vibrancy that filled the theater quite well. His coloratura passages were solid through and through, though there were moments in his entrance where they weren’t quite as polished as latter instances. That said, dramatically he wasn’t quite compelling, Idreno lacking a true sense of personality in the proceedings. A lot of this has to do with his overall dramatic integration in the production. With so many cuts, all we know of him is that he might or might not want the throne, but that he does want Azema. This might come down to the libretto, but the direction did little to try and clarify any of it and Camarena was abandoned to his own vocal fate. His most effective moment was during his aria, “La Speranza più soave” as he managed to build up Idreno’s rage with every phrase, his singing growing more accented and pointed. It was one of the few moments in the opera where a musical passage explored a character’s evolving emotions.
From his first moment onward, Ryan Speedo Green’s booming bass was simply a revelation. It’s a coarser sound, but it grabs you and holds your attention with its richness and size. Oroe is perhaps not a massive assignment, but he is slowly establishing his presence at the Met and will no doubt be a major star in years to come.
Star of the Night
That said, the true star of the night was Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace. From the first note to her last, she suited the vocal lines perfectly. The coloratura was pure and clean at all moments, and she seemed to be exploring its expressive qualities throughout. In her opening aria, it took on a more gentle touch as Arsace thought of Azema. In the confrontation with Assur, the voice was more accented, exploring the tension and hatred Arsace feels for Assur. In moments with Semiramide, it took on a nobler quality, the voice filling out to match Meade’s far more voluminous quality. DeShong’s lows were splendid and even if the voice doesn’t possess the biggest sound, it has a clarity that is simply stunning in its beauty.
Jeremy Gaylon’s lone appearance as the Ghost of King Nino was effective, the bass’ sound coming across powerfully into the cavernous theater. In her Met debut, soprano Sarah Schafer was unfortunately deprived of her lone aria. The number of times her character’s name was mentioned over course of the evening (and it doesn’t get mentioned all that much) likely exceeded the number of words she got to sing overall.
The chorus saw many of its passages cut out of the opera making its presence more noticeable for its awkwardness in the staging than for its vocal brilliance. It was rather shocking that it got left out altogether from Idreno’s final aria.
Benini’s cuts may have spared the audience a longer evening, but his overall choices also bore the brunt of the discombobulated evening. Rossini’s operas hinge on the contrast between extremes of slow and fast music. Cut down on one and you automatically weigh heavily in the other direction. When most of the music getting chopped up is the faster music, then the overall work feels slow and lacking in momentum. The strettas were chopped up all over the place and to compensate, Benini attempted to perform them at a far faster clip than one might expect. The result? Sloppier performing from the larger ensembles. The orchestra, a fine ensemble that can be truly sublime on its best nights (see “Parsifal”) wasn’t as refined as one would hope for Rossini. The woodwinds, always so crucial to the composer, were noticeably out of sync in major passages of the overture. There were some solid moments however as Benini showed no restraint in the recurring Rossini crescendos layered throughout the opera. They offered momentary excitement and anticipation but were no major respite for the evening as a whole.
This was just the first performance, and as I have noted before, the production will likely grow as the ensemble gets more comfortable. Will this be a defining night at the Met? From the looks of the first production, it has a long way to go before it gets there.