Gioachino Rossini, Semiramide
Bel Canto at Caramoor
Friday, July 31, 2009, 8:00pm ~ Venetian Theater
Critical edition by Philip Gossett.
Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Caramoor Opera Chorus
Will Crutchfield, conductor
Semiramide, Angela Meade, soprano
Arsace, Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano
Idreno, Lawrence Brownlee, tenor
Assur, Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone
Oroe, Christopher Dickerson, bass
Opera-lovers owe the Caramoor Festival a vast debt for their splendid revivals of bel canto masterpieces. Rossini’s massive opera seria is perhaps not as obscure as some, because Joan Sutherland adopted it as a vehicle (in a mutilated form, in which her character, Semiramide, made even more prominent by cuts in other roles, does not die in the end), and the Met staged it for Marilyn Horne in 1990, after a ninety-five year hiatus. Once we become accustomed to Rossini’s highly conventionalized musical language, in which we have to listen through charming tunes and florid ornamentation to connect with a psychological and dramatic core which is most definitely present, we can appreciate the force and grandeur of his neo-classical music drama. Rossini’s fixed musical forms, which remained the same, no matter how fully developed or elaborate they might be, give Semiramide a special monumentality all its own: the tensions of the plot, in which unknown relationships and criminal secrets emerge, become all the more powerful, as they act against this classical inertia. Semiramide is a great opera, and it was a brilliant idea to present it in concert with minimal dramatic action with Will Crutchfield, who has a unique affinity for Rossini, and The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a small orchestra with plenty of color in its string section that sound just right for Rossini, and with a stellar cast of some of the most promising younger singers, including Vivica Genaux, Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee, and Daniel Mobbs. The results were quite thrilling, and it was a joy to see Rossini’s masterpiece in working order again.
In spite of the concert format, the singers were entirely into their roles. Some acted more overtly than others. Lawrence Brownlee’s role, the Indian prince Idreno, did not provide as much scope as the principals, and he confined himself largely to projecting his feelings with his voice, which he did admirably. Vivica Genaux, who was the only singer to perform without a score, gave a vivid and detailed portrayal of a youth confronting an identity and relationships of which he had previously known nothing. Without score, she was free to explore this. Acting, moreover, is an integral part of Ms. Genaux’s approach to singing: the mood and expression are present in her mind before she opens her mouth to sing. The limited action, entrances and exits combined with occasional interaction among the characters, was enough to bring us intimately into the drama, as if it were fully staged. The rest we could imagine. There could not be a starker contrast with the disappointing concert performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and the truly deadly one of Wagner’s Meistersinger, Act III we have witnessed at Tanglewood in recent years. This was everything concert opera should be—a vivid realization of a dramatic work with the freedom to devote extra attention to the music. In her recent interview for the Berkshire Review for the Arts, Vivica Genaux stressed how much she enjoys working at Caramoor, where the music comes first.
She also praised Will Crutchfield and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for their experience in playing with singers and their colorful sound. Each section of the strings stands out with its darkish, individual sound, rich in color and texture. The tone of their woodwinds and brass are also direct and full of character, recalling to a degree the sonorities of a period band. In the Venetian Theatre at Caramoor—which is actually a tent—they were loud and clear, and totally free from the bloat of a full symphony orchestra. Mr. Crutchfield shaped the phrases and cued the dramatic entrances of the section as well as the rests, encouraging strong attacks, in such a way as to bring out the drama within Rossini’s score. The orchestral playing was full of life. At one point later on in the work the ensemble became a bit loose for a few minutes, but Crutchfield soon brought his players back under control. The Caramoor Opera Chorus sang superbly and acted their Greek chorus role with vigor and commitment.
Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, is at the point of announcing a king for her people, whom she presumably will marry. Some fifteen years before, she conspired with the thoroughly evil Prince Assur in the murder of Nino, her husband. He has both a strong desire and a strong expectation of assuming the throne, but Semiramide no longer trusts this ambitious schemer. She is in love with the young commander of the Assyrian army, Arsace. Neither know that they are mother and son. She thinks her son Ninius died at the same time as her husband. Only Oroe, the high priest of the Magi, knows the secret, which lurks under the surface of the various intrigues of the plot. When Semiramide announces that Arsace will be king and her husband, the young general receives the news with discomfort because he loves the Princess Azema, who is also loved by Idreno and Assur, who, infuriated by this news, redoubles his efforts to obtain the throne. In Act II Oroe meets with Arsace and informs him of the truth by giving him an letter which incriminates Semiramide in the murder of Nino, and makes it clear that Arsace is in fact the lost Ninio. Eager to break off the marriage to his mother and to bring the situation into some kind of order, Arsace shows her the letter, much to her discomfiture. He knows that vengeance is due his father, but he is reluctant to exact it on his mother. In fact he forgives her. However, at the previous public announcement, Nino’s ghost appeared, summoning Arsace to a chamber in his tomb. This occurs in the final scene, when Assur, Semiramide, and Arsace/Ninio meet. In the darkness he tragically stabs his mother in place of Assur. In Semiramide revelation leads only to blind darkness. In her extensive dying words, she is fully reconciled with her son, and urges him to enjoy a happy life. Still, the young man must assume his responsibilities with this added sorrow.
I’ve provided this plot summary only to emphasize the powerful role played by the principal characters’ ignorance of their true interconnections—not only relationships of blood, but of fundamental moral debts, in fact the deepest guilt of all, that of parricide. As the truth is revealed it falls on Arsace to restore moral order in a manner true to his filial duties and feelings. This is basically impossible, and in the chamber deep in Nino’s tomb, fate, the supernatural, or chance take the matter out of his hands. The negligible power of free will in these events links Rossini’s opera seria and Voltaire’s tragedy on which it is based with a tradition extending back to the renaissance. This year we had an opportunity to see it in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Bosten early Music Festival.
Semiramide is the artifact of a crucial transition in the composer’s career. He had been employed by the Naples Opera to compose vehicles for Isabella Colbran, whom he eventually married. On the way back from performances in Vienna, Rossini and his wife settled around Bologna, where he wrote Semiramide as a commission for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. After that he moved on to Paris, without necessarily thinking of spending the rest of his life there. Semiramide was the last of Rossini’s Italian operas, which he adapted for the Paris Opera a couple of years after its Venetian premiere. The Rossini scholar Philip Gossett found an alternate final scene with a recitative in which Semiramide further reconciles with her son. In his Divas and Scholars, Gossett discussed this and promised a performing version of the revision. Now he has made it, and Will Crutchfield adopted it for this performance. I found it both convincing and affecting.
Some members of the Caramoor audience were deeply absorbed throughout the long evening, while others were more impatient. During Semiramide’s dying conversation with her son, one elderly woman, rasped loudly, “Why doesn’t she just shut up?!” Clearly she was not an admirer of the Paris revision. That was not the only instance of bad behavior: claques applauding Angela Meade and Lawrence Brownlee spoiled the closing orchestral bars of some of the numbers with premature clapping. I haven’t encountered a claque in ages, but perhaps I’ve been leading a sheltered life.
If different groups in the audience came to Caramoor for different reasons, one certainly can’t blame the people who made the trip just to hear great singing. There was plenty of it from all the principals, and all served Rossini well. If I single out Vivica Genaux as the most compelling , both musically and dramatically, it is hardly my prejudice. She is always 1000% engaged whenever she sings. She never compromises on characterization or drama, even with the immense concentration required in approaching the music as she does. In Rossini she shapes her melodic lines with clarity and expressive elegance, while she executes her runs and ornaments with a precision, tonal focus, and color unlike anyone else. The result is a realization of bel canto style which directs the stylistic elements most criticized for formalism as a means of expression. In this way it becomes a powerful device in Rossini’s musical rhetoric. This, and not mere skill, was how Isabella Colbran and Rosa Mariani thrilled audiences in their time. Hearing Ms Genaux, one feels that her respect for the music is so great that she never approaches the florid passages as a mere display of skill. Developed to this level, Ms. Genaux’s approach amounts to a real “school” of singing.
With this I have no intention of diminishing the achievement of the younger singers who shared the stage with her. Angela Meade has attracted a good deal of attention over the past few years, winning an impressive array of major competitions, including the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in March 2008 as Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani. In the central role of Semiramide Ms. Meade displayed complete confidence and poise. She entered into her character completely, that of a much older women with a guilty conscience and an unbridled passion for a very young man. She has a large, richly integrated voice which serves her brilliantly in Semiramide’s high melodrama. Her approach to ornament was rather showy, but beautifully rendered, and there was really nothing to criticize. Rossini’s brilliant passagework and the high notes he gives his anti-heroine don’t really have to be in perfect good taste.
Lawrence Brownlee is well on his way to becoming a household name. His brilliant, high voice is perfect for Rossini, and he is entirely free of the thinness and lack of grounding some of these voices suffer from. His is a gorgeous,rich voice that can sail effortlessly into the highest registers demanded by his part with elegance and no sign of effort. His natural gift is matched by an impeccable sense of style, good taste, and a sympathetic feeling for his character. It was a joy to hear Mr. Brownlee sing, and I look forward to many years of growing more and more familiar with his work.
Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs’ gifts give him a masterful control of both the dramatic and the lyrical aspects of his important role, that of Assur, the villainous prince. He can spin elegant, glowing resonances over a dark, weighty foundation. Hence his Assur has a certain smoothness, as well as a respectable capacity for wrath and vindictiveness. Mobbs also handled the florid sections inflicted on him by Rossini far more effectively than most singers in his range. We can look forward to hearing Mr. Mobbs quite a bit in the Northeast in the near future. He will be singing Wagnerian parts at the Bard Music Festival, as well as Escamillo in Carmen at the Boston Lyric Opera, Ormonte in Partenope with New York City Opera, and Orsini in Wagner’s Rienzi with the Opera Orchestra of New York, when and if they get around to performing it.
Christopher Dickerson also excelled as Oroe, the priest. While giving his character all the solemnity he was due, he avoided all pomposity or stiffness. His Oroe was always alert, forceful, and humane. One more example of first-rate singing serving a well-conceived characterization—which is what Semiramide absolutely needs.
Musically and dramatically Gioachino Rossini could not have been better served than in this brilliant concert performance, which was nothing if not a labor of love.