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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Semiramide – opera in two acts (1828) [125:38]
Semiramide: Deborah Riedel (soprano)
Ircano: Filippo Adami (tenor)
Scitalce: Fiona James (mezzo)
Mirteo: Wojtek Gierlach  (bass)
Tamiri: Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Sibari: Leonardo Silva (tenor)
Altensteig Rossini Choir/Hans-Jorg Kalmbach; Matthias Wurster)
Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, live, Rossini in Wildbad Festival, 9, 13, 15 July 2005. A co-production with SWR.
NAXOS 8.660205-6 [66:25 + 59:13]
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Say “Semiramide” to any self-respecting opera-goer and they will immediately think of Rossini’s masterpiece of 1823, his last opera composed in Italy. Yet the libretto of Semiramide (or Semiramis) had been around for a good deal before Rossini’s time, and had been set by a number of his operatic predecessors. Written by one of opera’s leading librettists Metastasio in 1729, Semiramide was set around forty times during the 18th century alone,  Hasse, Vivaldi, Gluck and Salieri being among those who had tried their hand at the subject.
Just over four years before Rossini was to take up his pen another master of 19th century operatic theatre was busy working on the tale. This was no great surprise. Despite the attempts to establish a new political and social order in post-Napoleonic Europe, the arts remained entrenched in a conservatism that harked back to the previous century. Thus Metastasian libretti were still very much in favour, and so it was quite natural for the young Meyerbeer, working in Turin, to turn to one for inspiration.
Indeed the 18th century influence meant that Meyerbeer tended to stick to a rather “closed” structure for the work, using mostly set numbers and ensembles interspersed with recitative. However he did break with this format for the Act 1 finale, which does build a more substantial edifice, a pre-echo of Rossini’s achievements to come.
Unfortunately Meyerbeer’s otherwise copious diaries and correspondence are distinctly lacking for the period of Semiramide’s composition, 1818-19, despite the assiduous researches of the composers biographer Robert Ignatius Letellier, whose four volume collection of diaries are published by the Fairleigh Dickinson Press.
However we do know that “Semiramide” did win a minor success when it opened at the Teatro Regio on 30 January 1819, incidentally receiving better reviews in the German than the Italian press. In the following year the opera was further staged in Bologna and Senigallia, re-titled now as “Semiramide riconosciuta”, and containing a certain amount of re-written material. Alas this version has completely disappeared, along with Meyerbeer’s original score. Only a contemporary manuscript copy of the first version survived, and this forms the basis for the current recording.
It has to be said that “festival” casts can present the listener with certain compromises, especially vocally, in a laudable attempt to get works staged at all. I don’t feel that is the case here. The cast acquit themselves pretty well. Listen to Olga Peretyatko in her Act 2 aria “D’un genio che m’accende tu vuoi ragion da me” for example; a delightfully lilting piece whose spirit the Russian soprano catches admirably. A little later in a duet “Barbaro non dolerti” the rather dark - and appropriately commanding - soprano of Deborah Riedel blends particularly well with mezzo Fiona James (Scitalce). I did wonder initially if there might be problems telling them apart in concerted passages but my fears proved groundless.
Meanwhile the Ircano, Fillipo Adami, makes a very decent attempt at a heroic bel canto tenor, a discipline not exactly bursting with candidates, although things have improved somewhat in recent years with the so-called “Rossini revival”. He sings “Io prigionero?”, later in the act, with decent attack and a sappy top to the voice; indeed he even manages the divisions reasonably well. The Mirteo, Polish-born and trained Wojtek Gierlach, maintains the standard of the other principals with a warm, firmly centred bass.
Choral singing and orchestral playing is decent with Richard Bonynge showing his considerable experience in this sort of repertoire, by allowing solos and duets to flow whilst controlling the bigger ensembles unobtrusively. The recording is a little cramped, the auditorium I guess is not huge, and whilst there isn’t much obtrusive stage noise the audience is quite enthusiastic and applause may distract those used to the studio. However as the likelihood of another recording is pretty remote, the message is clear - if you like the repertoire I’m afraid you’ll just have to make allowances. Despite the lack of texts and translations there is, as usual with Naxos, a good synopsis as well as some colour production stills.
This is an interesting and very worthwhile release that throws light on a corner of Meyerbeer’s career not otherwise overly endowed with information. It is even more welcome as it is well performed and decently recorded.
One is just left curious. If only more manuscript material had survived; one wonders what changes Meyerbeer wrought upon the work? Had it been more successful .. what effect it might it have had on Rossini’s version of the tale in 1823? Alas, we may never know…
Ian Bailey

see also review by Robert Hugill


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