GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Semiramide—Jessica Pratt (Semiramide), Vivica Genaux (Arsace), Taylor Stayton (Idreno), Wayne Tigges (Assur), Evan Hughes (Oroe), Natalie Conte (Azema), Patrick Cook (Mitrane), Weí Wu (L’ombra di Nino); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA; Sunday, 22 November 2015]
In the simplest essence of a wondrously complicated art form, opera is a study in the surrender of reality to imagination. Audiences in Raleigh, Rome, or Riyadh are asked to accept that, with composers and librettists as their travel agents, they are whisked in the relative comfort of their seats to locales known and unknown. There are women who look like men, men who sound like women, and women dressed as men impersonating women. Barbers in Seville somehow speak Italian, Veronese youths converse even from distant balconies in perfect French, and Spanish noblewomen and their English maids spout defiance at Turkish pashas auf Deutsch. Gods descend from the heavens, volcanoes erupt, towns are swallowed by seas, and avalanches end mountainside liaisons. Amidst all of these peculiarities and improbabilities, among the dwarves and dragons, however, there are veins of emotional truth and humanity that surge through the layers of artifice like geysers. Beyond the stage, people rarely pause to sing five-minute arias as they die, but people die—of disease like Violetta and Mimì, in tragic misadventures like Gilda and Siegfried, and by their own hands like Werther and Cio-Cio San. People betray and are betrayed, love and are loved, fear and are feared. At its core, opera is neither obviously relevant nor a straightforward means of escape from reality. The most gifted composers of opera created scores that inspire audiences to think, and it is in the thinking that the relevance and escape are born. Audiences cry for Violetta and Mimì not because they know Violettas and Mimìs but because there are in virtually every life stories like theirs. Many critics and musicologists exclude Gioachino Rossini from the ranks of great composers of opera, but the listener willing and able to look beyond the farcical comedy in Il barbiere di Siviglia finds a timeless tale of young people in love. In Le siège de Corinthe, there are the painfully modern collisions of passion and faith. In Semiramide, premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 3 February 1823, the volleys of roulades yield a drama shaped by warped relationships, political ambitions, hidden identities, and assassinations realized and thwarted. His final opera composed for an Italian theatre, Semiramide is the culmination of the lyric art that Rossini inherited from Händel and Hasse via Jommelli, Mysliveček, Mozart, and Cherubini. With its litany of intrigues and power-brokering, could any opera be better-suited to being brought to life in the American capital by Washington Concert Opera than Semiramide?
Concert performance is an ideal medium for Rossini’s Semiramide. Setting a libretto based, like that of his 1813 Tancredi, upon a drama by Voltaire, Rossini had in Semiramide a subject that engaged his imagination on an exalted level. Unusually for Rossini, the Overture—joyfully played in Lisner Auditorium by the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra—makes use of thematic material from the opera, perhaps the finest manifestation of which is the sublime Andantino for a quartet of horns. The wealth of musical invention in Semiramide is extraordinary by any standard but truly remarkable for Rossini, who, though only thirty years old at the time of Semiramide’s première, had lost patience with the whims and caprices of Italian opera and its practitioners. In Washington Concert Opera’s March performance of Guntram, Artistic Director Antony Walker established himself as an insightful interpreter of the music of Richard Strauss, but pacing Semiramide enabled him to return to the bel canto repertory of which he is an acknowledged master. Walker is an animated conductor who puts his whole body at the service of the music, so there is nothing dainty about his bel canto: when Rossini requested extremes of volume and dramatic thrust, Walker complied unhesitatingly. Moments of lyrical restraint were handled with equal imagination, and the singers were clearly encouraged to take risks in a supportive, nurturing environment. As in the Overture, the orchestral musicians played capably throughout the performance, their confidence more noticeable than in several WCO performances in the recent past. Rossini is rarely cited as an innovative orchestrator despite the ingenuity of his part-writing, but how marvelously he composed for the woodwinds in Semiramide! Fortunately, the WCO wind players met the demands of Rossini’s score exuberantly, and their high level of musical excellence was undermined by only a few mishaps. [The sources of several awkward squeaks and squawks in quiet moments were mysterious. Was the shade of Nino lurking, poltergeist-like, among the horns?] Gita Ladd’s leadership of the cello section remains a trove of mellow tone and artful phrasing. Trained by Bruce Stasyna, the singers of the WCO Chorus were, as ever, to be commended for both their preparation and the gusto of their performance. In Act One, they sang with rousing pagan piety, and their account of ‘Di plausi qual clamor giulivo eccheggia’ was aptly evocative of trepidation. ‘Un traditor, con empio ardir’ at the start of the Act Two finale was exhilaratingly delivered, and the choristers’ closing thoughts, ‘Vieni, Arsace, al trionfo, alla Reggia,’ were expressed with celebratory musicality. Undoubtedly owing both to conscientious rehearsal and genuine affection for Rossini’s score, this Semiramide was, in terms of orchestral playing, choral singing, and conducting, among WCO’s finest performances, one that not only satisfied in the moment but also intensified appreciation of Rossini’s genius.
As is often the case in WCO performances, the choristers’ ranks were mined for singers for secondary rôles, and the results in this Semiramide were indeed gems. Taking the part of Mitrane, the captain of the guard, tenor Patrick Cook sang strongly, the timbre attractive and the technique capable of fulfilling all of Rossini’s requests. He was particularly noteworthy in Act Two, articulating ‘Alla Reggia d’intorno, canto Arbace dispone I tuoi più fidi’ and ‘Calmati, Principessa’ with clear diction and equivalent dramatic clarity. The princess Azema has far less to sing than her importance as the object of Arsace’s, Idreno’s, and Assur’s affections would seem to warrant, but soprano Natalie Conte sang every note entrusted to her impressively, effortlessly filling the auditorium with gleaming sound. She might well prove a worthy Semiramide.
L’ombra e l’assassino: Bass Weí Wu as L’ombra di Nino (left, foreground), bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Assur (center, on stage), Maestro Antony Walker, and the WCO Chorus and Orchestra in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
Having Chinese bass Weí Wu, a galvanizing presence as Friedhold in WCO’s Guntram, on hand to intone the warnings of L’ombra di Nino, the ghost of Semiramide’s murdered husband (and, it is eventually revealed, Arsace’s—né Ninia—father), was the epitome of luxury casting. His is a voice destined for Sarastro and Gurnemanz, and he used the instrument to tremendous effect in Nino’s dire pronouncements from the tomb, music obviously influenced by the scene for the Commendatore’s effigy in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
A commanding presence both vocally and physically as Oroe, the High Priest of the Magi, young bass-baritone Evan Hughes brought muscle and nuance to the considerable range of his music. Beginning with a sinewy account of the recitative ‘Si, gran Nume, t’intesi’ in the opera’s Introduzione, he proceeded to a fiery voicing of Oroe’s lines in the quartetto with Semiramide, Assur, and Idreno, 'Di tanti Regi, e popoli.' In Act Two, his scene with the chorus, ‘In questo augusto soggiorno arcano,’ was sung with blazing intensity. The zeal with which Hughes’s Oroe incited Arsace to exact revenge on Assur was viscerally conveyed by the flinty grandiloquence of his singing. Hughes sounded as though he could have sung Assur on a moment’s notice, but his Oroe was the sonorously-sung dramatic spine of the performance.
The duplicitous Assur was portrayed with smug smirks and big, bold tone by bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, a singer whose versatility and snarling, somewhat nasal timbre recall Norman Treigle. Throughout the performance, Tigges’s singing possessed towering impact despite his occasionally seeming under-rehearsed. The voice was slow to warm up, but in the quartetto with Semiramide, Idreno, and Oroe in Act One he sailed through Assur’s roulades fearlessly if not always accurately. In the duet with Semiramide in Act Two, a prototype for the duet for Nabucco and Abigaille in Act Three of Verdi’s Nabucco, Tigges’s Assur prodded and threatened his queen with relish. Assur’s mad scene, one of the finest scenes in the opera and a prefiguring of Macbeth’s encounter with the apparition of Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth, drew from Tigges his best singing of the evening. The aria, ‘Deh! ti ferma,’ was phrased with subtlety and finesse, and the hateful character could for a moment almost be pitied. The cabaletta, ‘Que’ Numi furenti, quell’ombre frementi,’ was voiced with electrifying machismo. Not all of Tigges’s passagework was executed cleanly: the defining quality of his Assur was bravado rather than bravura, but it was a characterization of unmistakable malevolence. Even in music for which it is not ideally suited, the pleasures of hearing such a hearty, healthy voice used with flair are self-recommending, and Tigges provided many moments of edge-of-the-seat vocal excitement.
Il re di Rossini: Tenor Taylor Stayton as Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
A native Ohioan and an alumnus of Philadelphia’s star-making Academy of Vocal Arts, tenor Taylor Stayton is carving a place for himself among the celebrated tenori di grazia of his generation. His singing of Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s Semiramide, his début in the rôle, expanded that place, furthering the reputation as a bel canto stylist confirmed by his recent performances as Percy in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera. Even by Rossini’s standards, Idreno is an extraordinarily difficult rôle, his bravura demands on par with the most challenging music ever composed for the tenor voice. From his appearance in Act One in the terzetto with Oroe and Assur, ‘Là, dal Gange, a te primiero,’ his coloratura is often terrifying, but Stayton’s performance exuded confidence. So confident was his singing, in fact, that the loss of Idreno’s magnificent aria in Act One, ‘Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento,’ with its pair of top Cs and climactic top D, was truly lamentable. Semiramide constitutes a long evening, of course, but cutting ‘Ah dov'è’ deprived Stayton of an opportunity to further display his Rossinian mettle. The Act Two aria con coro ‘La speranza più soave’ littered the tenor's path with musical hurdles, however, and he cleared every one of them with the assurance of an Olympian. Negotiating the ferocious coloratura with the appearance of ease, he rose to top B and C with ringing enthusiasm. Looking the part of the calm, collected, debonair leading man, Stayton’s fantastically-vocalized performance exuded suavity and swagger.
L'uomo più piuttosto della festa: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
In a career now spanning two decades, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux has made a specialty of Rossini’s travesti rôles, having credibly evinced masculinity while dispatching coloratura with astounding technical faculty in parts like Falliero in Bianca e Falliero, Malcolm in La donna del lago, Néoclès in the La Scala version of Le siège de Corinthe, and the title rôle in Tancredi. As Arsace in WCO’s Semiramide, her coloratura singing was a marvel, but no less remarkable, particularly in a concert performance, was her nuanced acting. Her Arsace seemed truly shocked by turns of events, and Genaux’s reading of Nino’s letter describing the circumstances of his death should be a model for all interpreters of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Violetta. The quiet awe of her singing of Arsace’s opening recitative, ‘Eccomi alfine in Babilonia,’ was intriguing, and the Andantino ‘Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento’ was magnetically sung. Her 'Oh, come da quel di tutto' was musically and dramatically magical. Genaux declaimed Arsace’s recitatives with wide-eyed wonder and joined Tigges in a darkly suggestive performance of the duet ‘È dunque vero,’ her shaping of the line in ‘Bella imago degli Dei’ appropriately amorous and her comment to Assur that he does not understand love youthfully sincere rather than mean-spirited. ‘Serbami ognor sì fido il cor,’ the first of Arsace’s duets with Semiramide, the pinnacles of Rossini’s genius and veritable templates for Bellini’s duets for Norma and Adalgisa and Donizetti’s scene for Anna Bolena and Giovanna Seymour, united mezzo-soprano and soprano in a vocal exhibition of the art of bel canto, the ladies’ breath control enabling outstanding feats of sustained phrasing. Genaux’s singing was equally accomplished in ‘Alle più calde immagini.’ Again duetting with Semiramide in Act Two, the mezzo-soprano’s singing in ‘Se la vita ancor t’è cara’ personified a nobility of spirit made even more apparent in ‘Quella, ricordati.’ The triplets in ‘Ma implacabile’ were delivered with astonishing degrees of rhythmic precision and synchronization. The Washington audience obviously felt that Genaux’s performance of Arsace’s aria con coro ‘In sì barbara sciagura’ was the zenith of the performance, and the imperturbable dexterity with which she dashed through the fiendish coloratura in the bottom octave of the voice proved them right. The final duet with Semiramide, ‘Ebben, a te, ferisci,’ was engagingly sung, the desperation and fear in ‘Giorno d’orrore, e di contento!’ reaching exalted heights of expression in the perfectly-executed trills and coloratura in thirds. Genaux infused ‘Madre, addio!’ with far more emotion than two words could ever be thought to express. There were passages in mid-range in which Genaux’s voice seemed to lose support, but she compensated with especially rich tones at the bottom of the voice. Musically and dramatically, her performance was moving and revealing: it was to possible to fully appreciate the extent to which Arsace is a man in crisis because the voice was under such meticulous control.
Figlio e madre: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace (left) and soprano Jessica Pratt (right) in the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]
It was only a short time ago that English-born, Australian by relocation, and now Italian by adoption soprano Jessica Pratt sang the title rôle in Semiramide for the first time, but her comfort with Rossini’s music was greater than some interpreters of Semiramide have acquired after many years of experience. Appearing like a goddess from a Botticelli painting after the male-dominated start of Act One, Pratt regally took command of her music from her first phrase in the quartetto with Idreno, Oroe, and Assur, ‘Trema il tempio, infausto e vento,’ her voice unfurling above the men’s voices like the Stars and Stripes above the nearby White House. The opera’s most familiar vocal number, the cavatina con coro ‘Bel raggio lusinghier,’ was delicately sung, not even the slightest suggestion of nervousness audible in Pratt’s sumptuously-phrased cantilena, but the weakness of the lower voice was evident. She caressed the text of ‘Dolce pensiero, di quell’istante,’ and the meteoric interpolated E6 with which she crowned the aria may well have been heard on the opposite bank of the Potomac. Partnering Genaux in the duet ‘Serbami ognor sì fido il cor,’ she increasingly sang with the assurance of a true mistress of bel canto confident of being in the company of an equal. She and her colleagues blended their voices stunningly in the quintetto in the Act One finale, ‘Giuri ognuno, a’ sommi Dei,’ she, Genaux, and Stayton building wonderful arcs of sound upon the unshakable foundation laid by Hughes and Tigges. Most at ease at the top of her range, where the voice rang out with amplitude uncommon for a singer with Pratt’s coloratura ability, she voiced ‘Qual mesto gemito da quella tomba’ in the middle of the voice with credible dramatic apprehension but a lack of the brawn that the music needs. Her voice stood out in the frenetic stretta, ‘Ah! Sconvolta nell’ordine eterno,’ ending Act One with a laser-bright starburst above the imposing wall of sound. Beginning Act Two with a resolute ‘Assur, I cenni miei fur sacri, irrevocabili,’ Pratt portrayed an endearingly feminine Semiramide who nonetheless would endure none of Assur’s treacherous threats in their duet, intrepidly engaging Tigges in a match of vocal wills. Then, she regained the falsely safer ground of conversing with Arsace, her voice growing fuller and more piercing as she learned that the man she loved was, in truth, her long-absent son. Her fluency in Rossini’s difficult triplets matched Genaux’s—no small achirvement! In ‘Ebben, a te, ferisci!’ and ‘Giorno d’orrore, e di contento!’ the soprano’s bravura technique shone: not since Dame Joan Sutherland—who Pratt’s tonal plushness and billowing light-auburn hair bring to mind—sang the title rôle opposite Giulietta Simionato, Lauris Elms, Monica Sinclair, and, legendarily, Marilyn Horne have Semiramides and Arsaces been as evenly-matched in terms of raw ability as Pratt and Genaux were in Washington. Pratt’s traversal of Semiramide’s Preghiera, ‘Al mio pregar t’arrendi,’ was beguilingly-phrased, but here, too, the relative pallor of the lower voice betrayed the singer’s first-rate intentions. Meeting her demise as the unintended victim of her son’s sword, this Semiramide sang gloriously in the terzetto with Arsace and Assur, ‘L’usato ardir.’ The notion of a character being misunderstood is often invoked comically, but Pratt’s interpretation of Semiramide suggested that there are far greater depths to the lady than other singers’ performances have suggested. Whatever she has done, she is no scheming Lucrezia Borgia. Compelled by the concert setting to seek the woman solely in Rossini’s score, Pratt brought her to life with a significantly wider spectrum of emotions than many staged productions have allowed the complicated queen. Such is the truest measure of a singer’s artistry, and Pratt’s performance qualified her as a rewardingly expressive artist.
Semiramide is a difficult opera—difficult to sing, difficult to conduct, difficult to stage; or, in the context of Washington Concert Opera’s performance, difficult to bring to the stage. That an opera company large or small can assemble an ensemble of conductor, choristers, instrumentalists, and renowned singers, some of whom have never before performed their assigned rôles, and, in the span of a week, prepare an opera like Semiramide for performance is little short of miraculous. That the performance that resulted from Washington Concert Opera’s preparations was as enjoyable as this Semiramide is, in reality, anything but a miracle. Opera is not an art of perfection. Above all, it is an art of collaboration and communication, achieved not by miracles but by motivation. Not every note was perfect, but the performance that transpired on the stage of Lisner Auditorium was a collaboration of committed artists that communicated the exquisite potency of the opera with which Rossini bade Addio to his native land.
Il Maestro: WCO Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker during Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]