Few partnerships among artists and their muses have affected the development of a genre as wondrously as the relationship between Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) and the remarkable Spanish diva who eventually became his wife, Isabella Colbran (1785 – 1845), enriched opera. When Semiramide premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1823 with Colbran in the title rôle, the thirty-year-old Rossini was already nearing the end of his career as a composer of opera, a career that enveloped Europe in a musical temporale that uprooted the groves of bel canto from Vienna to London. Like the earlier Tancredi, Semiramide allied Rossini’s musical prowess with a drama by Voltaire, the warped tale of the murderous queen of Babylon inspiring Rossini to create not only one of his most distinguished scores but also an especially fine part for the Falcon-esque Colbran. Not even memories of Colbran’s fire-breathing interpretation of Semiramide were sufficient to preserve the opera’s place in the repertory, but occasional revivals reminded subsequent generations of the score’s merits. No less a judge of artistic quality than Oscar Wilde admired Semiramide when he heard a performance in Cincinnati in 1882. Uniting a phenomenal cast with a team of first-rate musicians under the direction of Artistic Director Antony Walker, a conductor with a rare gift for bel canto, Washington Concert Opera’s 22 November concert performance of the opera has every ingredient necessary to prepare a feast that satisfies the hunger for a Semiramide that serves every morsel with the musicality that Rossini the consummate operatic chef concocted.
Among many American music lovers, Semiramide is only slightly more familiar than Guillaume Tell, holding the advantage over the later score of having both a frequently-heard Overture and a famous aria, the title character’s ‘Bel raggio lusinghier.’ Like the obscurity in which so many of Rossini's serious operas still slumber, the neglect to which Semiramide has been subjected is in no way mandated by the quality of the score. Interestingly, Semiramide was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Boston as early as 1892, when the title rôle was sung by the legendary Adelina Patti, and was introduced to the MET’s New York audience two years later by Dame Nellie Melba. In January 1894, an anonymous critic wrote in The New York Times that ‘it is not likely that any one takes Semiramide very seriously in these days. It is a string of display pieces which give the singers abundant opportunity to exhibit the agility of their vocal organs. The music has no connection with the plot, which is very imperfectly explained even by the libretto, and which, indeed, is better left unexplained.’ Is it possible that New Yorkers in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century heard a different Semiramide than the one that inspired Rodney Milnes to write in Opera in response to the 1990 MET revival of the opera that ‘it is a work that grips the imagination from first to last’? In actuality, Semiramide’s famous Overture is the rare such work in the Rossini canon that incorporates thematic material from the score it was intended to introduce, and the level of inspiration in evidence in Rossini’s settings of Gaetano Rossi’s text elevates the opera to a higher histrionic plane than that occupied by many of the composer’s operas. Whether or not a listener is willing to accept Semiramide as a profound work, the challenges that the score poses to singers cannot be denied, and it is the clearing of these musical hurdles that is certain to be the defining virtue of Washington Concert Opera’s performance of the opera.
Rossinian cousins: Soprano Jessica Pratt, Washington Concert Opera’s Semiramide, as Amira in Gioachino Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival, 2012 [Photo by Eugenio Pini, © by Rossini Festival, Pesaro; used with permission]
An Englishwoman by birth and an Australian since her teens, soprano Jessica Pratt recently sang the title rôle in Semiramide for the first time with Opéra Municipal de la Ville de Marseille. The finicky French press wrote that her performance was of a quality that caused the audience to wish that time would stop in order to prolong enjoyment of her singing. There is surely some sort of cosmic significance in the fact that it was a pair of fellow Australians whose efforts prevented Semiramide from being lost forever in the mists of Babylon’s hanging gardens. Dame Nellie Melba was Semiramide in eight of the Metropolitan Opera’s nine performances of the opera in the Nineteenth Century: after 1895, Semiramide was not heard again at the MET until 1990, depriving MET audiences of hearing the great Australian interpreter of the Twentieth Century, Dame Joan Sutherland, who sang the rôle opposite the Arsace of Marilyn Horne in California, Boston, and Chicago. Melba’s and Sutherland’s voices were very different instruments from what historical accounts suggest that Colbran’s was, but these ladies memorably carried Semiramide’s mantle until it could be hoisted aloft in the Twenty-First Century by their talented countrywoman. Bringing her newly-minted portrayal of Rossini’s conflicted queen to Washington, Pratt is committed to refining and deepening the characterization that garnered acclaim in Marseille. ‘I would like to highlight her vulnerability and her very precarious position, her determination to survive and rule in a masculine world,’ the soprano commented. Whereas many singers are understandably concerned solely with meeting the technical demands of the rôle, Pratt, one of the finest technicians among today’s generation of young bel canto singers, is dedicated to revealing unexpected facets of Semiramide’s personality. ‘I would like her to be seen less as a fearsome tyrant queen and more as a brave, intelligent, and ambitious woman trying her best to survive in a world where every day could be her last if her past crime comes to common knowledge.’ That she sets this goal whilst facing some of Rossini’s most ferocious bravura writing is a testament to her artistic fearlessness and confidence in the solidity of her technical foundation.
Ardent Arsace: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, Arsace in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Michel Juvet; used with permission]
Created by coloratura contralto Rosa Mariani, whose brother Luciano was Rossini's first Oroe, the rôle of the noble warrior Arsace in Semiramide is among Rossini's most challenging parts for the modern mezzo-soprano voice—and, indeed, one of the most formidable travesti rôles in opera. Ideally, an Arsace must be both chest-thumpingly masculine and sensitive, a combination that is difficult for a female singer portraying a male character to achieve. In Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Semiramide, Arsace will be brought to life by one of the world's most acclaimed Rossini singers, Alaska-born mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. In a career spanning two decades, Genaux has sung many of Rossini’s great travesti rôles, as well as his contralto heroines such as Angelina in La Cenerentola, Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri, and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Like Marilyn Horne before her, she has scored well-deserved successes as Arsace in Semiramide, not least opposite Angela Meade and Lawrence Brownlee at Caramoor in 2009. Having previously sung Angelina in La Cenerentola and Falliero in Bianca e Falliero for Washington Concert Opera, Genaux comes to Washington on the heels of a much-lauded Norwegian début as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi with Stavanger Symfoniorkester and Fabio Biondi. ‘I’m very excited to sing the role of Arsace again,’ Genaux recently said. ‘Semiramide is one of my favorite operas: the music is so full and rich, with gorgeous duets and ensembles paired with the virtuosity and intensity of the arias. To me, it’s one of Rossini's finest works, and I can't wait to share this amazing experience with the Washington Concert Opera!’ That she has such esteem for Semiramide is of course very meaningful considering Genaux’s experience with Rossini repertory. Not surprisingly, her affection for the opera is greatly influenced by the music for Arsace. ‘Arsace is very representative of the mezzo rôles in Rossini's dramatic operas in that he is a young man who, through the course of the opera, is called upon by circumstances to take on the responsibilities of an adult,’ Genaux stated. ‘I love walking in his shoes every time I sing him, feeling how the bewilderment and uncertainty of the youth matures into the conviction and complete dedication of the man.’
Idiomatic Idreno: Tenor Taylor Stayton, Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Amy Allen; used with permission]
The third variable in Semiramide’s Pythagorean equation of ambitions, amorous intrigues, and assassinations is the Indian king Idreno, who will be sung in Washington by thrilling young tenore di grazia Taylor Stayton. Idreno’s allegiances and perspectives are continually trapped in the crossfire of the drama throughout the opera, and his music—much of which has often been cut for a variety of reasons, foremost among which is tenors’ inability to sing it—reflects his near-constant state of flux. One of America’s most exciting young singers and one capable of mastering Idreno’s music on Rossini’s terms rather than his own, Stayton recently wowed audiences at the Metropolitan Opera with his singing as Percy in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, a rôle in which he has shone since his time at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts. Though Rossini and Donizetti are often misleadingly pigeonholed together, Stayton is keenly aware of the stylistic chasm that divides Semiramide from Anna Bolena. ‘There is a definitely a difference, musically, between Rossini and Donizetti,’ he indicated. ‘Percy is the beautiful standard of Donizetti: the long legato lines, ascending to slow beautiful cadences at the ends of arias, and always demanding complete vocal control. For me, Idreno is more [representative] of the intense vocal fireworks that Rossini is known for in his operas and [of] maintaining that vocal control with virtuosic agility—a completely different ball game.’ Particularly with music demanding technical concentration as great as that required by Idreno’s searing—and stratospheric!—Act One aria ‘Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento,’ it can be very difficult to achieve a credible characterization of a rôle in the concert setting. ‘Since WCO champions concert versions of opera,’ Stayton remarked, ‘my focus is on the music. I hope the audience will enjoy and have as much fun listening to Semiramide as we do performing the opera.’
For the lower-voiced male rôles in Semiramide, Washington Concert Opera’s performance offers a trio of fantastic voices wielded by expert stylists. Assur, a part in which Samuel Ramey excelled to the degree that a New York critic wrote that Ramey’s performance of the music at the MET put the bel in bel canto, is entrusted to bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, a singer whose versatility, not unlike Ramey’s, enables him to follow his Assur for Washington Concert Opera with an assumption of the titular seagoing wanderer in Virginia Opera's Spring 2016 production of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. Oroe, the High Priest of Baal, will be sung by bass-baritone Evan Hughes, a native Californian whose sonorous voice and interpretive intelligence have delighted audiences in recital halls and opera houses. Chinese bass Weí Wu, the engaging Friedhold in WCO’s March 2015 performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, returns to Lisner Auditorium to intone the dramatically vital utterances of L’ombra di Nino.
Despite the increased traction that the opera has achieved on the European circuit in recent years, it has now been more than two decades since Semiramide was performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, it was not until 1997 that La Cenerentola, one of Rossini’s most popular scores, was performed at the MET, where recent seasons have offered audiences première productions of Rossini’s Armida and Le comte Ory. Without question, the difficulty of the music puts Semiramide out of the reach of all but the most gifted Rossinians. Fortunately, it is an ensemble of precisely such artists that Washington Concert Opera will assemble in Lisner Auditorium on 22 November. With a rare performance of Donizetti’s La favorite in the original French scheduled for 4 March 2016, Washington Concert Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season again provides audiences with opportunities to experience gems of bel canto as they were meant to be performed.
Sincerest thanks to Jessica Pratt, Vivica Genaux, and Taylor Stayton for responding to questions for this preview and to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR and Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications for facilitating the artists’ responses.
For more information about Washington Concert Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season and to purchase tickets, please visit the company’s website.