CD Review: Opera Rara’s ‘Semiramide’
Albina Shagimuratova, Daniella Barcellona & Mirco Palazzi Are Revelations in Rossini MasterworkBy Mauricio Villa
An Opera Rara is a love letter to Bel Canto fans. Not only does the company research, rediscover, restore, record, and perform the forgotten operatic heritage of the 19th century, but they offer it up to collectors in a vibrant and potent packaging that includes a generous booklet with a extended article about the opera, photos and lithographs from the original cast, and sets and photos of the recording session, plus the libretto.
With that in mind, Rossini’s “Semiramide” seems like a strange choice for the company. While it is not one of the most performed Bel Canto operas, it isn’t overly obscure either. But what makes Opera Rara’s seminal recording so unique is that it offers a complete recording, using critical editions and research on the proper style and orchestration.
“Semiramide” was the last Italian opera seria by the composer before he moved to Paris and started writing under the influence of the French Grand Opera. Although it achieved great success in its premiere at La Fenice, Venice in 1823, and was widely performed around the world, the opera disappeared from the standard repertoire, mainly because of its difficult vocal demands.
It was eventually revived at La Scala with Joan Sutherland in 1962 and has since been repeatedly staged (albeit in heavily cut versions) at such companies as the Metropolitan Opera House, Royal Opera Hous, and Bayerische Staatsoper. It wasn’t until the 1992 Pesaro Opera Festival that the work was uncut.
At Home in a Challenging Role
Taking on the leading role in this recording is Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, in a performance that netted her the International Opera Award and the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA).
It’s a difficult voice to classify as her timbre is dark and round in the middle register but then has stratospheric notes and an amazing easiness for coloratura. And yet, her voice is perfect for such a strangely written role.
Isabella Colbran, the soprano who sang the premiere, was already in vocal decline, a fact Rossini was quite aware of. As such, there is no opening cavatina for the soprano, the register begins quite low and gets higher little by little throughout the opera never going higher than B natural. Because Colbran had apparently developed a wobble, up top Rossini wrote florid lines that did not require her to sustain notes, thus making the vibrato less noticeable.
In Shagimuratova’s case, her voice features none of those challenging aspects. She dominates her opening scene, which has a central writing, with strong determination. But the highlight of the performance is her aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” which is clearly in her comfort zone. She sings the first part of the aria as written, only adding a cadenza that extends to a high C sharp at the end. But it is in the cabaletta “Dolce pensiero” where it becomes a spectacular vocal display of pyrotechnics, fast clean coloratura, and two dazzling high E naturals (including a diminuendo on the first one)
Her voice blends perfectly in her two duets with Arsace, here interpreted by Daniella Barcellona, always adding subtle variations in style during the da capos. In general, Shagimuratova is very cautious with her variations, never overloading the phrases. She manages to shine in what must be the most difficult moment for her type of voice, which is the Act two duet with Assur, “Se la vita t’e cara.” The writing is very dramatic and low, but the soprano displays complete control of her whole voice and her dark round middle manages all the dramatics demands of the duet.
Arsace is sung in a stylish Rossini idiom by mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. She is truly an expert in this repertory, having dominated it for several years.
Barcellona’s voice is big, rotund and dark and her central and low registers are her trademark, a perfect asset for this contralto role that has a tendency to hang around the middle of the stave with descents to low A and G. Barcellona manages this low tessitura quite well but she takes advantage of the Da capos to include scales reaching high B flats and B naturals, singing roulades and scales with frenzied speed and depurated coloratura, all suitable to the Rossini style.
Her voice combines perfectly with Shagimuratova in her two duets and Barcellona never shows any trepidation in matching the vocal highs of her colleague, ascending to a B flat in the first duet “Serbami ognor” and a B natural in “Ebbene, a te, ferisci.” Barcellona is clearly the most stylish performer in this recording and each vocal appearance by her is a treasure.
Italian bass Mirco Palazzi sings the role of the villainous Assur and has a tremendous enterprise which resolves around his beautiful bass timbre, a fair vibrato, a balanced sound from the lowest to the highest register, and an amazingly ability to sing coloratura (something which is much harder for heavy low voices).
In Rossini’s early operas there were no differences in the male low voices which all were classified as basses, and analyzing the tessitura of the role it would be classified nowadays for a bass-baritone as it goes from low G to high F with an insistency in keeping the voice above the stave constantly between E and F. This is hard territory for a bass. But Palazzi seems to find no trouble in sustaining such an uncomfortable tessitura and his coloratura technique is impeccable. And this role, as is the case with Semiramide, is extremely florid, with scales and roulades in most of his vocal lines, including his very first appearance in the opening terzeto “Si, sperate,” The bass is only given two bars to breathe before continuing with more extensive coloratura and Palazzi, who is so in control, manages to emit some coloratura passages with staccato accents as marked in the score.
His duet with Arsace “Bella imago degli dei” has several ascensions to high F, but Palazzi dares to interpolate two more, as in his duet with Semiramide “Se la vita ancor t’è cara.” He also introduces subtle stylish variations in the da capos.
But Palazzi’s big moment is during his mad scene in Act two, “Il di già cade,” when he has the most lyrical moment of the entire opera during his lamenting aria, here sung with emotion and pathos. Afterward, Palazzi delivers the bombastic cabaletta with ample pyrotechnics and striking high Fs.
Not as Impressive
Barry Banks, who sings Idreno, is proof of why good high notes do not sustain the whole interpretation of a role. He has an impersonal timbre, some problems with diction (like the pronunciation of some “T’s” which sound English rather than Italian) and his coloratura is blurred and imprecise.
During his first entrance in the opening Terzeto he breaks the fluidity of the coloratura to breath. It is undoubtedly a very difficult moment because the coloratura lines are really long and fast, but good Rossinian tenors manage to sing them in a single fiato. That said, he does interpolate a high C at the end of the Terzeto and another one at the end of the Quartet.
His first aria “Ah dovè il cimento” proves to be extremely difficult for him and the result is uneven. The aria has seven written high Cs and a high D, but Banks interpolates four extra high Cs in the da capo of the cabaletta. But the attack of some Cs is dubious, the coloratura (and this aria has a lot) is not precise at all, and he changes the cadenza of the aria despite it NOT being written “a piacere.” He still reaches the high D but it is clear that he choses an easier way for him to reach the note rather than the written vocal line. Some of his variations seemed odd and out of style.
He seems more comfortable in his second aria “La Speranza più soave” where the aria is less florid and the tessitura a bit lower. It is in the cabaletta when his vocal problems show up in the quick scales and roulades, although he demonstrates once more his power with two rotund and well-supported interpolated high C sharps. For those interested in good high notes, Banks definitely delivers. Unfortunately, he delivers little else in the recording.
The rest of the cast sing minor roles, with Gianluca Buratto’s Oroe featuring rather bland sounds in the higher register and unstable low notes. Conversely, David Butt Philip delivers a bright and sweet tenor as Mitrane.
The Opera Rara chorus is solid with energy and determination in their multiple appearances. Ditto for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the baton of Sir Mark Elder who tends toward slower and pesante tempi but who deals with the Rossinian crescendo expertly. Notable moments in his interpretation include the overture, which presents several musical themes of the opera, and the tension he manages to obtain thanks to the work of the string section when “L’ombra de Nino” appears during the finale of the first act.
Ultimately, this is an indispensable recording for Rossini and Bel Canto lovers with the voices of Albina Shagimuratova, Daniella Barcellona and Mirco Palazzi proving to be the most adequate singers for these roles nowadays. Whoever cast the opera definitely deserves high marks for these choices.