Review: The Met Revives the Rare ‘Semiramide’ With a Golden Cast
By Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, February 19, 2018
Offering palace intrigue and plot twists that would make a Trump White House blanch, the Metropolitan Opera tonight revived its beautiful production of Rossini’s Semiramide, swathed in blue and gold and filling the house with impressive vocal pyrotechnics.
The rarely staged work is an operatic page turner, and John Copley’s production (set by John Conklin), with its captivating visual variety, stands up nicely against its feisty libretto. If you don’t know the work well, skip the synopsis – you don’t need it and once the action gets moving, plot turns are as entertaining as they are numerous.
You may not hear this everyday, but Semiramide’s book is one hell of a lot of fun.
And this production is damn well sung, lead by the vocally beautiful Angela Meade. Every member of this cast (together for the eight-performance run) has rock solid bel canto chops – thankfully as this piece, with its unrelenting demand for vocal virtuosity, will eat a singer for lunch.
The Met hadn’t produced Semiramide for ninety-five years prior to this production which debuted in 1990, and in tonight’s program notes, Paul Thomason theorizes that it’s only in the last few decades that a crop of men have addressed the particular challenges of the work, challenges standard for women in the rep.
The Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov (the only cast member not from North America) brings smooth agility to his massive sound. Several seasons back, he was electric as a sadistic Henry VIII in Anna Bolena and tonight it wasn’t implausible that the Babylonian queen might toss true love aside and marry Abdrazakov’s Assur for the powerful beauty of his voice.
(Of course tonight’s true love does get tossed, but not for artistry.)
The Mexican tenor Javier Camarena has rocketed to house-favorite status since his 2011 debut, and tonight that house did its best to force a rare (and forbidden) encore from the singer following spectacular high D’s in Act I’s “Ah, dov’é.” Camarena’s passage work is intensely accurate. Perhaps a note here or there can waft toward reedy, but his dollar notes are paid in big big bills and his top is brilliant – bright and clear as a starburst chandelier. It’s also effortlessly confident. Act II surges with passion and while you shouldn’t miss any of these folks down the road, be particularly attentive to taking in Camarena.
The American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong sings Arsace with lively color swimming in a sumptuous sound. Like Meade, she can throw her voice forward in the mask, dancing through passage work without losing a drop of tone. Her vowels live, breath and develop ever so across long florid passages, and her use of text is smart, smart, smart. She owned, tonight, the role previously sung at the Met by mezzo icon Marilyn Horne.
Heading an impressive cast, Meade lives as comfortably in her voice as most any singer could. Like those around her, the passage work is squeaky clean. And it’s rich and thrilling. Her comfortable, warm sound has weight you can hold, throughout her range. Her top is big and secure. Meade, with the help of a succinct libretto, is in every way exciting as this tortured and most interesting queen.
Early in the game, Ryan Speedo Green sets the bar for the night with his wonderfully dark-voiced Oro. Sarah Shafer makes a solid Met debut as Azema. Jeremy Galyon brings height and breadth to the ghost of King Nino. Tonight’s very few tempo and ensemble issues will smooth as Maurizio Benini, the fine Met Opera orchestra and this cast move past opening night excitement. The Met Opera chorus is welcome for every second of its generous stage time.
Passion, betrayal, murder, a ghost, a made scene and some very awkward family moments abound in this rarely staged but deeply satisfying gem. Run to the Met to see its long awaited revival.
Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide plays the Metropolitan Opera through March 17, in a production by John Copley, conducted by Maurizio Benini with set design by John Conklin, costume design by Michael Stennett, lighting design by John Froelich, directed by Roy Rallo, and with Ryan Speedo Green, Javier Camarena, Ildar Abdrazakov, Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Kang Wang, Sarah Shafer and Jeremy Galyon.
Cover photo: Soprano Angela Meade in the title role of ‘Semiramide’ at the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.