[Met Performance] CID:302920
Semiramide {17} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/26/1990.


Metropolitan Opera House
December 26, 1990


Semiramide..............June Anderson, Act I
Semiramide..............Lella Cuberli, Act II
Arsace..................Marilyn Horne
Assur...................Samuel Ramey
Azema...................Youngok Shin
Idreno..................Chris Merritt
Oroe....................John Cheek
Nino's Ghost............Jeffrey Wells
Mitrane.................Michael Forest

Conductor...............James Conlon

Production..............John Copley
Set designer............John Conklin
Costume designer........Michael Stennett
Lighting designer.......Gil Wechsler

Review of Rodney Milnes in Opera (UK)

New York. Whether or not John Copley's production of "Semiramide" (December 26) was any good (it was) seemed insignificant compared to the fact that the METROPOLITAN OPERA had mounted a major new staging of one of the great masterpieces of 19th-century opera. Indeed. seeing this, Rossini's last Italian opera, and "Guillaume Tell," his last French one. within six months in two of the world's leading opera houses was a privilege and a pleasure, and confirmation-as if it were needed-that Rossini is firmly and finally re-established as one of the giants among opera composers, along with Mozart. Verdi and-he is forced to admit grudgingly-Wagner (oh, those "mauvais quarts d'heure," of which there are none in "Semiramide").

On the contrary, it is a work that grips the imagination from first to last in its fascinating combination of classical form (as befits its Voltairean provenance), Gothick dramaturgical detail and abundantly rich, romantic orchestration. Rossini is throughout in complete command of his drama's massive structure, the juxtaposition of huge chunks of musical masonry perfectly judged-how clever, for instance, to place so surefire a hit as 'Bel raggio' well over an hour into the first act. The only potentially "mauvais" minutes come with the tenor arias, since Idreno is not exactly central to the plot, but when well sung ( as here ) they take their satisfying place in the score's rich fabric.

After the widely varied musical interest of the long first act-including the amazing finale stretta-Rossini hits you with a shorter second one in which every number is a winner, from Semiramide's and Assur's guilty reminiscences (Verdi surely recalled Rossini's placing of the "banda" when he wrote "Aida"), through Arsace's and Idreno's solos, the gripping, mother-son duet ( equivalent to the closet scene in "Hamlet" and on the same level of accomplishment ). The astonishing Mad Scene for bass, and the fearful denouement, after which Arsace, having either killed his mother or been the instrument of her suicide, is hailed by the enthusiastic crowd (shades of "Boccanegra"). It's an extraordinarily mature masterpiece, its characters presented in great depth (the guilt-racked vulnerability of both murderers is sympathetically suggested), and a decisive nail in the coffin of the Rossini of legend-cynic, gourmet and joker. He was a great dramatist, tout court, and the fact that he could follow this essentially family drama of private guilt with the great public issues raised in "Tell" bears witness to the range of his genius.

It was good, in a performance worthy of the work, to hear two singers who have contributed significantly to the Rossini renaissance, Marilyn Home and Samuel Ramey. The renaissance has, after all, been less to do with the rediscovery of the
music than with the re-emergence of singers capable of doing it justice. Home remains a phenomenon, a bel canto artist who nevertheless gives full value to words and one who, as in her Covent Garden Isabella two years ago, knows precisely what her voice can and cannot do and acts accordingly. There is a restrained beauty about her singing in the glorious Indian Summer of her career that is even more satisfying than the broad dramatic effects she achieved in her barnstorming prime. I thought this Arsace quite the best thing I've heard her sing. Ramey's account of Assur's Mad Scene was extremely impressive, as was his finely moulded vocalism throughout. I only wish he could be persuaded to keep his torso under wraps for just one performance, one day, somewhere.

The title role, or half of it (Demisemiramide?), was sung by June Anderson, who retired ill in the interval, cancelled the broadcast on December 29, but luckily was well enough for a live television concert on New Year's Eve. I find her a most frustrating artist. She is prodigiously gifted with a brilliant, perfectly placed soprano that projects easily into the widest spaces; range, technique, agility, all are formidable; drawbacks include monotony of vocal colour and uncommunicative Italian. A more serious drawback is lack of dramatic engagement: she played the guilty Assyrian Queen with all the fiery involvement of minor British royalty [cutting ribbons at] a vicarage fête-little more than a serene, glassy smile crossed her features. After the interval Lella Cuberli, who had opened the run on November 30, took over, and straightaway here was a woman you could believe might have murdered her husband. Less naturally gifted Cuberli may be, arguably, but at least you know she's on the stage, and she brought the hitherto rather bland performance to vivid dramatic life. Chris Merritt (Idreno) found his best form with some exciting singing in the second act: there's surely no one to touch him in this repertory today. Young Ok Shin (Azema), John Cheek (Oroe) and Jeffrey Wells (Ghost of Ninus) upheld the Met's reputation as a singers' house.

The production was not, saints be praised, set in present-day Mesopotamia, though Gulf War "Semiramidi" will probably soon be two a penny on the continent, unless Singers' Power intervenes. John Conklin's slightly foxed permanent-set-with-cloths suggested something rotten in the state of Assyria without rubbing your nose in it. and Michael Stennett's handsome Empire costumes certainly flattered the singers. one or two of whom benefited from a little flattery. John Copley's organisation of stage space and choral groups, his sensitivity in directing two artists of such disparate height as Anderson and Horne, and his discreet disposition of supernumeraries betoken the sort of unobtrusive skill that many a Bright Young Director would do well to study before wheeling on the Scud missiles. James Conlon's conducting was beyond reproach: he kept the music on the move without appearing to, and gave the singers all the support they needed and deserved. The orchestral playing and choral singing were. it goes without saying, superb.

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