Musings From The Hill: ‘Semiramide’
Because of the demands on the human voice, “Semiramide” was revived by the Metropolitan Opera only after a quarter of a century. Happily, the Met filled every role with an exceptional singer who could also act.
Set in ancient Babylon, the scenery was as stupendous as one might hope. The present manager wants only the grandest of the grand and, time after time, our eyes as well as our ears feast on the result.
The overture is the most well-known part of this lengthy opera though it too does seem to go on and on. The superb camera work, more than usual, highlighted the solo instruments — even — a first! — the four double basses. Rossini doesn’t hesitate to write in those deep, deep notes I enjoy hearing. There was also a favored flutist, a nice-looking young man who appeared on camera quite frequently.
After that rollicking beginning, this became a very serious opera (lots of intrigue before the obligatory deaths), also a good four hours long.
Curtain up. Enter the queen of Babylon who looks more like a heifer (most singers nowadays are svelte and attractive): Semiramide — well, the “semi” was obvious. What makes all these roles so difficult is the bel canto singing that sounds like the rat-a-tat of a machine gun though initially I more clearly pictured a human voice in a car going over railroad ties. Quickly.
It has been fifteen years since the king died. In those days a woman could not rule so choosing a new king had become a top priority. (I have no idea why they waited so long — although perhaps that helped make sense of one aspect of the plot. See below.)
There are three candidates: Assur (the bad guy), Idreno (a tenor with a magnificent voice) and the hero of it all: Arsace sung by a woman in a “trouser role.” I imagine Rossini felt the need to even out the stage: 3 men and 3 women. “Arsace” is pronounced the same as Versace — saw-chay. (If nothing else, I may not forget now how to pronounce the designer’s name. He would have had a ball with all the fabric on stage.)
Turns out Semiramide poisoned her husband with Assur’s help. (See? I told you he was bad.) Only now the ghost of the former king, named Nino (which, knowing some Italian, seems a peculiar choice) pops up, deathly white (surprised?), out of a hole in the stage, disappearing down another when his singing is over. Everybody’s singing: “Speak to us” and “Open your lips” giving the poor guy no chance to say anything.
The chorus appears wearing what looked to me like elongated flan pans on their heads. Glistening in gold, I had to stifle a laugh. There’s a lot of singing “Gioia” which suggested where all that extra weight might have come from. Then too, most of the cast was dressed in heavy velvets and brocades, wearing enough drapery material to cover the windows in my entire home. The few men in the chorus appeared nearly naked from the waist up with equally bare legs. (They were definitely not overweight.)
The oracle says Arsace has to revenge the murdered king. Curtain falls as all wonder who the intended victim shall be. End first half.
Intermission gave us a chance to meet the cast. One of the great singers (as I said, all were) was a young American bass named Speedo. (I really thought the opera was fantastic enough without that.) But turns out Speedo grew up in the slums and, I believe I heard him mention a prison sentence. At fifteen he was given a chance to go to the opera in New York and saw “Carmen” with a star who “looked just like me.” If an African American could make it on that stage, he figured he could too — and obviously did! I liked his story.
Act II. It’s a long time before we get around to the “victim” for this opera has many minutes to go. Somewhere far offstage, Arsace has had a chance to meet the young lass, who obviously preferred him. (She was the only one with a respectable figure but also looked very wan and didn’t have terribly much to do.)
Overjoyed, Arsace hurries off to tell the queen but, being an opera, Queeny thinks his declaration of love is meant for her. Wanting to hold on to a good thing, she names him king — and husband. Oh, horrors! (For all except the queen who likes the way this is turning out.)
An old letter written by the deceased king tells all that Arsace is really his son. “You aren’t Arsace” which must come as a surprise in itself. But he is the crown prince. Marrying mom doesn’t sound so good now, even back in ancient Babylon. So it’s up to him to avenge dad — but with whom? (Assur has been hanging around all this time — remember, fifteen years! — figuring he deserves the crown for being Queen’s best dastardly buddy.
Somehow mom, best buddy and the kid all end up in dad’s tomb. It’s dark and all are dressed in dark clothes. Each carries his own sword or dagger. In this staging it was a little hard to figure out why Arsace didn’t know it was mom but he stabs her in the back. She dies — quietly, an operatic surprise. Assur, not dying, is taken away to be tried by the huge chorus who has also found its way into the tomb. (It is very large indeed.)
Arsace walks straight out of the down-below and ascends a magnificent stairway straight up to where he is crowned, lovely loving and loved lass waiting near the top.
Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.