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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide, Opera in two acts (1823) Semiramide - Albina Shagimuratova (soprano); Arsace - Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano); Assur - Mirco Palazzi (bass); Idreno - Barry Banks (tenor); Oroe - Gianluca Buratto (bass); Azema - Susana Gaspar (soprano); Mitrane - David Butt Philip (tenor); Nino’s ghost - James Platt (bass)
Opera Rara Chorus (Madeleine Venner: chorus master),
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
rec. 2016 Henry Wood Hall, London
Sung Italian texts with an English translation
OPERA RARA ORC57 [4 CDs: 231.43]

Sir Mark Elder continues Opera Rara’s mission to bring to life rarely performed operas with a complete studio recording of Rossini’s Semiramide with Albina Shagimuratova and Daniela Barcellona in the principal roles. Reinstated here in this dramatic masterwork are all of the passages traditionally removed in modern revivals. After this recording was made, Elder reassembled his Opera Rara team for a concert performance of Semiramide at the BBC Proms 2016, in the Royal Albert Hall. Undoubtedly there is increasing interest in the opera and notably, in 2017/18 season, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden staged a revival. This, a co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper, was its first full staging there since 1887, though a concert version was given in London in 1986. During the 2017/18 season The Metropolitan, New York staged Semiramide; this was its first revival there in almost twenty-five years.

Rossini’s two act grand opera Semiramide was composed to an Italian libretto by Gaetano Rossi, based on Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis. This in turn was based on the legendary Semiramis of Assyria. Rossini wrote the title role for his wife, the celebrated dramatic soprano Isabella Colbran. This epic tragedy is Rossini’s fitting farewell to Italy prior to visiting Paris in 1823 and finally settling there the following year. The opera was first performed at La Fenice, Venice on 3rd February 1823. Semiramide is Rossini’s longest Italian opera – it lasts almost four hours here and the first act alone stretches to a remarkable two hours and twelve minutes. Not surprisingly it has its longueurs.

Haunted by the demons of her past, Semiramide has ruled as queen regent of Babylon for fifteen years since the death of her husband, king Nino, whom she had killed with the collusion of Prince Assur, her lover. Semiramide is now to name her successor. To Assur’s chagrin, the queen names Arsace, commander of the Assyrian army, who she loves. Only Oroe, high priest of the Magi, knows that Arsace is the son of Semiramide and Nino. Oroe tells Arsace of his real identity, forgives his mother and plans to kill Assur. A fight takes place and Arsace, attempting to strike Assur, hits Semiramide, who dies. Assur is arrested and a devastated Arsace becomes king.

Fighting against fate, Semiramide features political duplicity, mistaken identity, intervention by the Gods and murderous revenge, including many examples of demanding virtuosic display from the singers. Convincing in the title role is soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who is becoming better known on the international stage and is currently singing Semiramide in David Alden’s production at Bayerische Staatsoper. In this passionate performance, singing with her bright tone, the Russian soprano is on top of the demands of the role. I especially enjoyed her celebrated act one cavatina with chorus, Bel raggio lusinghier… Dolce pensiero. Expressing delight that her commander Arsace (really her son), who she is in love with, has returned, Shagimuratova demonstrates poise and expression together with most striking and adeptly controlled coloratura. In the Dolce pensiero section, Shagimuratova’s leap to her dazzling high notes is remarkably successful. The Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona is Arsace, commander of the Assyrian army, a ‘trouser’ role on stage. A consummate performer, Barcellona is in splendid voice, notably in her act one cavatina Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento, where the commander, ordered back to Babylon, expresses his love for Azema, displaying her remarkable technique with aplomb and musicality. Entirely persuasive with Arsace’s wide range of emotions, Barcellona demonstrates command of her attractive coloratura, negotiating the challenges with ease.

Mirco Palazzi is very much at home as Assur, prince of Assyria. In Assur’s act two scene and aria, Si, vi sarà vendetta… Deh! ti ferma, ti placa, perdona, he swears he will seek vengeance and kill Arsace. Next, he calls to God for mercy. Steady and resonant in tone, the Italian bass is in committed form and the tough coloratura demands present few problems. In his usual committed form Barry Banks, as Indian prince Idreno, makes every word count. In Idreno’s act two, scene six aria with chorus, La speranza più soave, the prince rejoices at being told by princess Azema that she wants to marry him. Here the bright toned English tenor is decidedly expressive and achieves his high notes efficiently. The role of Oroe, the all-knowing high priest of the Magi, is performed by the Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, displaying his deep, dark tone with grand clarity of expression. The Portuguese soprano Susana Gaspar has only a small part as the Babylonian princess; nevertheless her passage Tutto perdei in act two, scene five is assuredly sung, revealing her smooth attractive tone. In the minor roles, tenor David Butt Philip as Mitrane and bass James Platt as Nino’s ghost do all that is asked of them.

With his undoubted passion for opera, Sir Mark Elder clearly infuses the same appetite into Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Quietly persuasive, Elder and his period instrument band are unquestionably on the same page, providing a convincing, ideally paced performance that is fresh and full of colour with some striking solo contributions. Opera Rara Chorus, trained by Madeleine Venner, doesn’t put a foot wrong, displaying good parity between real unity and expression.

As I have come to expect from Opera Rara, the accompanying booklet is first-class, containing a helpful and comprehensive essay written by Benjamin Walton, a detailed synopsis by Richard Osborne together with sung Italian texts and an English translation. From Henry Wood Hall, London, the engineering team has provided clarity, body and satisfying balance that never swamps soloists and chorus. Making a compelling case for Rossini’s grand opera Semiramide, this magnificent Opera Rara release is hard to fault.

Michael Cookson


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