One year ago, OperaDelaware inaugurated a Spring Festival with a rare operatic version of Hamlet. Now, its second festival highlights Semiramide, a variant on Hamlet, intermingled with Oedipus.
A rare treat
Written by Gioachino Rossini, the opera was performed at the Metropolitan in only two seasons in the entire 20th century and not at all in the 21st, and not in Philadelphia since 1894.
Conductor Anthony Barrese, who revived Amleto last year, did an even more impressive job with this more complicated, more demanding piece. He trained an excellent cast and led a remarkably colorful vocal and orchestral performance.
Semiramide and her lover Assur poison Semiramide’s husband, King Nino of Assyria. Nino and Semiramide’s young son Ninia disappears and is presumed dead. Fifteen years later, Semiramide rules alone and the kingdom is in disarray. The populace believes only a male co-ruler can make Assyria great again, and some Assyrians just don’t like the idea of a woman as chief executive. Semiramide picks a handsome young visitor from Scythia (Iran, on today’s maps) to be her ruling consort and husband. Trouble is, he’s not yet 20 years old and she’s close to 40. He also turns out to be her long-lost son.
Art imitates life
That age difference reflected an aspect of Rossini’s personal life. He had an affair with (and eventually married) famed soprano Isabella Colbran and wrote Semiramide as a vehicle for her. She was seven years older than he, which was considered shocking in that era.
Along with murder and incest, the opera features spectacular vocal pyrotechnics and an overture with a catchy crescendo that resembles Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
Lindsay Ohse assumed the title role, which was rescued from neglect in the 1960s at La Scala by Joan Sutherland. Ohse handled all the demanding trills, leaps, scales, staccato, and legato just fine. What’s more, she showed some qualities Sutherland never commanded: sexiness, a rich middle register, and strong articulation. Ohse has sung other leading roles for Barrese’s Southwest Opera in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As her son Ninia, later named Arsace, Aleksandra Romano gave a stunning display of decorative low-voiced coloratura; with her petite stature, she was convincing as a teenage boy. Romano auditioned for OperaDelaware’s director Brandan Cooke in New York last year, and he says he was blown away. So was I.
Though Daniel Mobbs has given fine performances in supporting roles for Opera Philadelphia, as the evil Assur, he revealed star quality, with warm, rich tones and a command of florid singing. His solidly projected voice filled the intimate Wilmington Grand Opera House, which is approximately the size of Venice’s La Fenice, where the opera had its world premiere in 1823. Timothy Augustin was lyrical in the tenor role of Idreno and Harold Wilson stentorian as the high priest in a performing edition by Barrese that significantly reduced the opera’s playing time. Only the set disappointed, with a series of ramps that got characters on and off efficiently but did little to enhance the drama. Dean Anthony directed.
Semiramide is presented as part of a Rossini tribute, in repertory with that composer’s Cenerentola (Cinderella) and Petite Messe Solennelle.