Put on an opera about regime change and there is always likely to be some topical reference to hand. The imminent fall of Robert Mugabe was in the news as Semiramide prepared to open, though little in today’s politics could rival the lurid turn of events as the wicked queen in Rossini’s opera seeks to choose a successor.
This co-production between the Royal Opera and the Bavarian State Opera opened in Munich back in February. It was a vehicle for star mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role there, as it is again here.
The work has not been staged at the Royal Opera House for 120 years and, as always, there are reasons why. Rossini’s opera seria is four hours long and is a highly coloured melodrama that sports murder, mistaken identity, incest, divine intervention, and a corpse rising from the grave.
David Alden’s production chooses an unspecified present-day setting, presumably not far from Rossini’s ancient Babylon. The walls of the vulgar, modern palace are hung with huge photos of the ruler and his family. Visitors to the ceremony of naming the successor are a carnival parade of nations ancient and modern, an Indian prince, a Scythian bearing arrows, a Rasputin lookalike. There is no attempt to make any serious political argument and the staging increasingly turns into a colourful, and rather risible, send-up.
In Rossini’s day the singing was all that mattered. And so it is here. Usurping a role that has latterly been a favourite of coloratura sopranos, mezzo DiDonato trumps them at their own game in the showpiece arias and displays a range of vocal colours, technique and expression that could leave any rivals for the role today standing. The ultimate challenge for her — Bellini’s Norma — surely cannot be far off.
Some of the finest moments come in her duets with the Arsace of experienced Rossinian Daniela Barcellona, a lower mezzo, who has lost some of the former bloom on her voice, but blends well with DiDonato. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings and plays the role of Idreno with captivating panache. On opening night an out-of-sorts Michele Pertusi handed over the role of Assur to the spirited, fine baritone of Mirco Palazzi at the interval. With Antonio Pappano vigorous, if a touch heavy-handed, leading the orchestra, the opera feels less than its four hours. Artistry like DiDonato’s makes time pass quickly.
To December 17, roh.org.uk
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