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Under A Rainy Babylonian Sky

New York
Venetian Theatre, Caramoor
07/31/2009 -  
Gioacchino Rossini: Semiramide (Libretto by Gaetano Rossi from a play by Voltaire, Critical edition by Philip Gossett)
Angela Meade (Semiramide), Vivica Genaux (Arsace), Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno), Daniel Mobbs (Assur), Christopher Dickerson (Oroe), John Andrews Fernande (Mitrane), Djoré Nance (The Ghost of Nino)
Caramoor Opera Chorus (Magi Babylonians, Princesses, Royal Guards, Scythians, Indians, Egyptians, Slaves, Satraps), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Will Crutchfield (Conductor)

Lawrence Brownlee (© Gabe Palacio)

Driving under the torrential rains to Katonah, New York, sloshing through the muddy paths of Caramoor, dumping umbrellas at the entrance of the Venetian Theatre, 1,722 undaunted souls sat down for three hours of trills, cadenzas, parabolic descents to the tomb-like bottom of the scale, and whooping up to soprano heavens.

Rossini’s great Italian tragic opera (tragic with a happy ending), Semiramide has such an endless flurry of vocal gymnastics that it must be the most punishing opera in the whole bel canto repertory. Two duets between soprano and contralto soar endlessly with different rhythms, one tenor sings two arias that few sopranos could handle, and the chorus is doomed to impersonate Scythians, Assyrians, Babylonians, slaves, Indians, Egyptians and other fauna of the Middle East without a stop.

Added to this is a plot which, even for 19th Century tragedy, is ridiculous. As best as I can rehash this mélange of Hamlet, Oedipus, Orestes and Groucho goes as follows. Crazy Babylonian Queen, having murdered her husband 15 years before the opera, falls in love with her Scythian boy-toy Commander., then magically discovers that the Scythian is actually her son. The son forgives his mom for murdering his pop, but doesn’t forgive the murder co-conspirator who wants to become king himself. Everybody meets in a tomb where the ghost of the murdered king appears. Son tries to kill his rival but instead kills Mom, and is officially declared a suicide, so that the son can marry Azema (did I mention Azema??) and rule Babylonia himself.

That takes a lot of bel canto music, of course, but the plot and music are—or should be—assuaged by backdrops which would make a German expressionist film director salivate. To wit: the Hanging Gardens (which the legendary Semiramide actually did design), the tomb, the Temple of Baal, and endless throne rooms.

That, however, was not to be, as the Caramoor Festival never had fully staged operas in its 18 years of bel canto, and recently decided on total concert performances. The evening dress regalia was fine (except for the villain in black), the stage, with soloists, orchestra, and chorus surrounded by Venetian colonnades, was suitable. But opportunities like showing the Queen being stabbed or putting Azana on stage when the Queen tells her son to take the woman’s hand, were missed.

Still, the full audience under the massive Caramoor tent came for the music, and of music there was much. The problem with a Rossini tragedy is that his tunes, cavatinas and scenas rarely are in league with the words. The tender duet between mother and son, and Assur’s Mad Scene, In sì barbara sciagura, have atmosphere (the latter was blighted by inappropriate applause), but the music for vengeance, love or retribution could have been used as well for partying, drinking and carousing.

None of this bothers a good bel canto singer, and Angela Meade is amongst the best. Looking every inch the Babylonian Regent, diamond earrings and dress glittering, Ms. Meade began slowly, but in the aria where she anticipates her young lover’s arrival, Bel raggio lusinghier, Ms. Meade literally sang to the tent-tops, and she never let up.

While her low throat tones were never that impressive, she traveled to the heights and actually held the top notes. Was it a high E or high F? Ms. Meade didn’t jump up and fall to a normal scale. She enjoyed those notes, played with them and slowly descended to us earthlings below her.

To many, Semiramide is vehicle for soprano and contralto, but Vivica Genaux as Arsace (the Commander turned son, written for female voice) had certain problems. Her voice is extraordinarily sensitive, and her inventions sounded spontaneous. Yet the Alaska-born singer is not possessed of the most powerful voice. In her opening pronouncement, Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento, she appeared a bit tenuous. It was pretty, but not commanding. Likewise, when hearing that she was the son of the woman who killed her father, the reaction was less than persuasive. “Oh! Qual horore!”, she said, with all the horror of finding that her hamster had escaped from its cage.

All of this changed when singing with Ms. Meade. It took great effort, but she reached Ms. Meade’s volume and power in both of their duets. Their recitatives together produced fire, their second duet, sweetly tuned, was as beautiful and tender as anything in this opera. In fact, by the end of their second duet, Ms. Meade and Ms. Grenaux threw themselves into the roles not like Queen and Commander or Queen and Son or Queen and Lover, but as two adoring sisters.

The villain of the evening, Assur, is sometimes taken by basses, sometimes baritones. Few can reach the depths of Samuel Ramey, but Daniel Mobbs was clear, intense and suitably evil. The Mad Scene (which once was eliminated for being too difficult) was here sung with great power and greater conviction.

The big surprise of the evening was Lawrence Brownlee as Idreno, an incidental character (I guess Rossini needed a tenor). Mr. Brownlee, though, has an extraordinarily clear tenor voice, and in both his arias, he essayed the all the florid lines with ease.

The smaller parts were quite adequate here, but most credit must be given to Will Crutchfield, who had a trio of challenges. First, he had to make a small choir sound massive. Second, to make the relatively small St. Luke’s Orchestra sound as if it had great choirs of trombones and brasses (which it didn’t). Third, for the first 30 minutes, Caramoor, unlike modern Babylonia, was not a no-fly zone, and overhead engines were heard three or four times.

The main thing was that he not only held this opera together, but gave it emotion, character and never-ending velocity.

A bonus for the evening was that this was the now standard Philip Gossett edition of Semiramide, and the editor himself gave an enlightening talk before. I noticed only two tiny cuts in the score, but a splendid addition at the very end, when the dying Queen gives a benediction to her son.

The fully-staged Semiramide was inevitably missed. But the voices last night frequently reached the grandeur of the opera’s intended backdrops, and Rossini’s endless caravan of thrilling music created, even by the rainy midnight closing, a radiant Caramoor sunlight.

Harry Rolnick



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