Semiramide visits her true home (Gran Teatro La Fenice, 25 October 2018)
You can’t go to a theatre like La Fenice and not think about its history. Staying true to the name, it resurfaced after three fires (1774, 1836 and 1996). What we see today is the house re-opened in 2004. So it’s both old and new. You may think it’s big because it has that compact design, but although the horseshoe is packed with seats, the stalls don’t go far back. The capacity is a mere 1126, according to Wiki. And yet, some of the operas now played with big orchestras in massive houses have premiered here1. Top belcanto WS favourites were first mounted here: Tancredi, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, as well as Semiramide itself.
Before we arrived for the very late 7pm2 start time, thadieu and I roamed the streets without much planning aside from 1) must have dinner some time before the opera and 2) must have gelato sooner rather than later. That eventually turned into an obsession for yours truly: find the 2 Euro 2 scoop gelato or else! You see, gelato gets more expensive the closer you get to the TripAdvisor sanctioned areas (all of sestiere San Marco, Ponte Rialto etc.). Tip: get your gelato early on (ie, closer to the bus station). I think I drove thadieu a bit mad with my stubbornness but cheap gelato was eventually found, eagerly consumed and then all was serene again 😉
We had a leisurely dinner of seafood at a Mom and Pops restaurant in a very quiet neighbourhood somewhere near the Arsenal. After that we strolled back with enough time to do some touristy shopping at the Fenice shop. It’s rather well stocked! They do La Fenice bags for 12 Euros and La Fenice t-shirts (off white, navy, black and red) for 19.99 Euros or thereabouts. There are magnets, cards, pencils, lots of books and CD/DVDs as well. We got the t-shirt – thadieu in navy and yours truly in red. You know I also got one of the magnets.
After getting our La Fenice fan fill, it was already time for the opera. As we were walking up the very cosy stairs I kept thinking “this is our floor” but thadieu just knew we had a long climb to our loggione seats. As with Teatro Malibran, the trick is to get first row in your area, no matter how high or low you’re sitting. We had seats in the central block of the top loggione and aside from an unfortunate pole (old school design…) – which could, in the end, be negotiated – we had excellent views. Ok, you had to lean forward a bit due to lights and railing, but nobody actually sat behind us3, so we didn’t have to worry about blocking someone’s view and we even stood for the most interesting duets/ensembles. The party in the loggione is very friendly, as is the Upper Amphi at ROH, the very top in Munich or at Theatre des Champs Elysees. It’s also mostly locals (of which there were plenty on the bus back to Mestre as well).
The orchestra were already busy tuning up. We noticed our main timpanist was a lady and she did a very good job during the night.
Semiramide: Jessica Pratt
Arsace: Teresa Iervolino
Assur: Alex Esposito
Idreno: Enea Scala
Oroe: Simon Lim
Azema: Marta Mari
Mitrane: Enrico Iviglia
L’ombra di Nino: Francesco Milanese
Conductor: Ricardo Frizza | Choir and Orchestra of La Fenice
Director: Cecilia Ligorio
The production looked to me “modernised Pizzi”, which turned out to be fine. It’s “generic period opera” costumes, with some black vs white business for the dancers/Semiramide or Assur’s attendants. As the opera progressed, Assur’s outfit morphed into “generic Bond bad guy” (ie, black and pretty tight). Arsace, who has been brought up to believe he’s Scythian, wears “generic BC foreign dude” wear, in other words “stuff put together to confuse sophisticated Babylonians” (a cow patch cape, two-tone wide leg trousers, platform shoes4 and a beret). None of this motley stuff detracts from Iervolino’s cuteness in this role ❤ or from her vocal awesomeness. THIS is Arsace.
Semiramide agrees, because in this production it’s pretty clear that these two are getting it on, though initially cute and disciplined Arsace stops Semiramide’s wandering hand before her touch becomes too distracting.
Arsace: I’d die for you [my Queen]!
Semiramide: oh, no, gorgeous, I’d rather you live for me (winks and lounges seductively). Come closer and tell me what you’d do to… I mean for me.
Arsace: like I was saying, I’d die for you! I’m a warrior…
Semiramide: oh, a warrior is exactly what I – by which I mean this empire – need(s). (strokes his thigh) You’re so strong…
Arsace: err, my Queen, I must tell you something…
Semiramide: I know what you’re going to say and the answer is yes! As long as you’re as faithful to me as you’ve been so far you can ask me anything – and I mean anything.
This goes on for a while, wine5 is involved and, well… what’s a young man to do when a beautiful and powerful woman his mother’s age offers him the world (literally and metaphorically)? Azema would have to hold down the fort against Idreno’s wooing by herself for a while. Though after his Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento? (also known as dude, where’s the cement?!) she too is getting a bit frisky. Lesser known historical titbit: conversations about construction materials were pillow talk back in ye olde Babylonia. I mean did you think the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens built themselves?!
Speaking of which, why is Idreno expecting Semiramide to just give him the keys to the empire? He’s just some dude from India, pretty much on Arsace’s level, except he looks like he’s commanding an army of blingy tailors rather than burly warriors. Semiramide wears her “belcanto diva” dress but we all know belcanto heroines like their men heroic (except for Violetta). I would also say this Arsace is most definitely a man, any ambiguity present is not of the gender kind.
So even though they got pretty well acquainted the day before, Arsace is still stunned when Semiramide makes the big announcement (that she’s passing on the throne to him as well as wants to marry him).
Arsace: shit! How am I going to explain this to Azema?!
Luckily, the spectre of his father gets involved (after all a father should attend his son’s wedding even if he had to bribe Cerberus to get there) and the conversation suddenly turns horror-film style. Trope #1: being mesmerised by weird stuff:
Arsace (to the spectre): I feel compelled to touch you! Can I?
I mean the spectre looks pretty damn well preserved for having been dead for 15 years, except in dire need of a shower – like he’d come down a chimney rather that up a drainage ditch from the world below (come to think of it, this decision is for the best; the production had hinted at it earlier when the sacred fire went out and ashes poured out from the sacred ash plates. Later the temple virgins did a surprisingly poor job at cleaning the floor (what amateurs don’t soak the towels first?!) but let’s not get lost in details like Scala did in his cement).
Oroe is a very congenial high priest but I have a feeling he’s rigged this game from the getgo, namely he made sure the basement’s (is, burial chamber’s) electrical instalation wasn’t working. The last act boasts that famous trio that goes something like this:
Semiramide: it’s very dark in here, I can’t see my hand. I hope I don’t soil my finery before this ordeal is over.
Arsace: wow, it’s so dark in this basement! Even as a fearless warrior I feel my bowels loosen…
Assur: was it always so dark here? With my luck that stupid spectre will come back and scare me shitless.
All: it’s so dark in here, we’re pooping our pants!
thadieu: someone hand them flashlights already!
We’re lucky this is in flowery, 19th century Italian, thank you very much.
But flashlights do eventually appear, because somehow Oroe’s attendants are able to locate Semiramide and realise she’s been stabbed to death.
Oroe: arrest Assur!
Arsace: …OMG! Who did I stab, then?!
Like, dude…! What kind of army commander of the Babylonian Empire are you, stabbing randomly in the dark?! This production does not give Arsace a stuffed unicorn to hold.
So, after much noodling that didn’t even mention the eyeliner wearing male harem that gets Semiramide hot and bothered whilst she’s singing about how happy she is that sexy stud Arsace is back in town, how was the singing, the conducting and the house band?
Let’s start with the conducting: compared with Pappano, Maestro seemed more interested in keeping the forward movement – which he did. Occasionally (the overture, for instance) he turned the corners a bit too abrasively for my taste, where I would’ve preferred more detail/more legato. But 4 hours went fast. The singers were not hampered by the orchestra. The house band sounded good to me, all the solos went without hitch and the instrumental tones were pleasant to the ear.
The singing went like this, from best to not so good: Iervolino, Pratt, Esposito, Lim, with Scala sort of around the corner. Dude started a bit shaky, with some intonation problems and wobble at the very top, which made the cement aria appear unfocused both vocally and dramatically. I loved it when Brownlee sang it but here it seemed to just go on and on. To Scala’s credit, he got it mostly together as the night went on. But he’s not someone I’m in any hurry to hear again. The public loved him.
Both thadieu and I agreed Lim as Oroe has a very warm, secure, rounded bass but he doesn’t have that much to sing. That warmth and rondness made him feel wise and kind dramatically, which fit. Would listen to him again.
Esposito was the night’s revelation to me, as I have been mostly cold toward him until now. This is the smallest house I’ve seen him in, which I’m sure has something to do with it. In this absorbent6 environment and at this size his voice travelled very well and dramatically he was ideal. Maybe I just need to see him in bad dude roles 😉 The only unintentionally amusing moment came when Assur sang about the spectre’s pulling his (Assur’s) hair 😀
Pratt has the belcanto diva down pat, without coming off too cold. I wonder why ROH doesn’t hire her. As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve enjoyed her excellent technique, ease with coloratura, beautiful, completely unforced – “blooming” (as per thadieu) – top and stylish touches of unfussy softer singing. Thadieu thought she applied too many ornaments but I disagreed. This is Rossini, there is no such thing as too many ornaments7; furthermore, even if you – which is me, quite often, lately – think Rossini did write too many notes, I didn’t feel like that in her case.
I guess thadieu liked JDD’s more psychologically exploratory approach – and certainly her lower notes, which, true, Pratt does not have – but this production is different and this Semiramide is a less conflicted heroine (until the end, where her conflict is more of the “omg, this is my child!” kind) and rather someone who is always trying to do what she has to do without overthinking it (that kind of thinking might’ve got her in this mess in the first place, but she’s a woman in charge of an empire, she can’t vacillate too much).
Even thadieu agreed that once she started interacting with Iervolino’s Arsace she “humanised”. Indeed, their interaction was excellent. I also thought her and Esposito’s Assur worked – something akin to a mutually destructive relationship. I mean, she still has the broader gestures of belcanto acting but within that frame she’s very effective.
That leaves us with Iervolino’s Arsace. Right after the entrance aria, thadieu and I were in agreement:
thadieu: I’m in love!
dehggi: this is perfect!
What can I say? She’s got everything: the whole range, the ease with coloratura, the wonderful warm contralto tone, the eveness from top to bottom and she can act. A pleasure to listen to/watch. Do yourself a favour and book a ticket to see her NOW. We’re lucky to have caught the Iervolino train this early 😀
After the opera finished, staff was eager to go home and pretty much rushed us out, hehe, somewhere in a narrow street at the back or side of the house.
thadieu: should we get the phone out?
dehggi: yes, because who the hell can navigate Venezia in the middle of the night?!
In the end we followed the crowd, comprised of orchestra members and audience, which took us back to Piazzale Roma more or less in no time. I have to say that nighttime walks through Venezia are the most romantic thing ever, even when you’re rushing to get the last bus. I was tempted to risk having to walk back to Mestre on the side of the motorway 😉 I mean, secluded little bridges, with not a soul in sight, Canal Grande in the darkness, the temptation to try and steal a gondola and glide into the night – you get the picture. With full moon to boot.
We passed a bunch of young people being loud with pizza (and beer?) in a piazza and that seemed the most incongruous thing ever to do in Venice.
thadieu: they’re missing a really great performance.
Youth is really lost on the young (I wouldn’t have cared about opera or, indeed, Venezia, when I was that age, either). But there’s a time for everything and right now I can’t wait for another reason to return ❤
ps: more pictures later, I wanted to get the post out.
- Ernani, Rigoletto, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra. ↩
- I don’t know what the deal is with the union in Venice, but Italians in general don’t seem to mind a show going well into the night (see Torino and Napoli). Semiramide is a long opera even with cuts, so our performance finished well after 11pm. ↩
- though people did shuffle around to get better views. ↩
- the Disco era alive and kicking up in the Caucasus! ↩
- and perhaps a bit of GHB… ↩
- kinda like in Munich, this is not a dry acoustics house. ↩
- whether you like it or not. ↩
Posted on October 28, 2018, in acting in opera, basses, italian opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, opera trips, rossini, sopranos and tagged gioachino rossini, semiramide, treatro la fenice. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.