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ROSSINI: Semiramide

CD Button Shagimuratova, Gaspar, Barcellona; Banks, Butt Philip, Palazzi, G. Buratto, Platt; Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Elder. Opera Rara ORC57 (4)

Recordings Semiramide Cover 119

“AN OPERA FOR a bird-brained audience,” critic Conrad L. Osborne once wrote about Semiramide. “[T]he thing just cannot be taken seriously.” He was reviewing Decca’s 1966 recording with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, now a classic but then a pioneering look at this most spaciously extravagant of Rossini’s Italian operas. I bought it, despite Osborne’s admonitions, and had the youthful temerity to disagree with him about the singing of the leading ladies—and about some of the music, too. Still, “the thing” seemed stolid, old-fashioned and awkwardly structured, too. 

But how could Rossini’s structure not suffer when cuts had reduced its expansive four hours to less than three? The subsequent celebrated stage performances starring Horne—first with Sutherland, then with Caballé—snipped away even more. It wasn’t until the Met’s 1990 exhumation that Semiramide was accorded a proper critical edition, by Philip Gossett. But those performances were cut, too, if not so heavily, and so was the 1994 recording with Cheryl Studer and Jennifer Larmore, prepared in consultation with Gossett. I had to wait until 2003 to experience the full breadth of Rossini’s conception, in an uncut version of Gossett’s edition at the composer’s namesake festival in Pesaro. Despite a ludicrous space-age production, the opera had never seemed quite so structurally grand and sound.   

Opera Rara’s lavishly presented set is touted as the first note-complete studio recording. Since the release of the Decca LPs, opera seria has been demystified, and Semiramide (1823) is more easily understood as the last, magnificent gasp of a dying genre. It’s still hard to believe that a mere six years separate it from the grandly Romantic, forward-looking Guillaume Tell—though Assur’s superbly varied Act II mad scene shows that Rossini’s gaze was fixed firmly ahead. 

Mark Elder, leading the period Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, gives the score classical poise but never shortchanges the drama; his is easily the best-conducted and -played Semiramide on CD, studio or live. He leads a fine cast, though two of the principals—Mirco Palazzi, as Assur, and Barry Banks, as Idreno—arrived fairly late in the process. They may not be the best on record (though the imposing bass Gianluca Buratto, as the high priest Oroe, is), but they’re skilled and stylish. Albina Shagimuratova, bright-toned and fairly lightweight, doesn’t sound to me like an adulterous, murderous, middle-aged queen of Babylon—she needs some darker colors, a greater grandeur of manner—but her singing yields pleasures. 

Daniela Barcellona, as Arsace, competes with my memories of her younger self in that Pesaro performance; her voice has loosened a bit since, but she’s still an expert exponent of the role. Banks too has sounded fresher, but he remains admirably adept and secure: Rossini tenors have come a long way since the days of John Serge on the old Decca set. Palazzi makes a similar case for Rossinian basses. I wish this performance had more of the fizz of the (slightly trimmed) live one that followed, at the BBC Proms—or of the concert performance from Wildbad captured by Naxos, the only other commercial issue to offer the opera uncut, with a marginally superior cast. But Elder and his expert band will keep me coming back to this one; none of its rivals makes a better case for Rossini’s splendid score. —Patrick Dillon



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