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All about his mother (Semiramide take 2, ROH 4 December 2017)

…with the bust of Adelina Patti, who sang Semiramide in the 1890s.

A woosh of dread went through the packed hall when an announcer came out, so strong I thought it would push her back to where she’d come from.

Announcer: No, no, no, everything is fine. All I wanted to say is that JDD had a respiratory infection last week but she is much better tonight. Enjoy the evening!

Frenetic applause and a general sigh of relief. More applause when Pappano came out (there normally are, but these were extra jaunty).

Let’s start with the conclusion: thank you Pappano and all. You convinced me this is truly a great opera and I wish it made its way back into the repertoire so we can hear/see it more often. Rossini outdid himself here. It’s got it all somehow melded into a whole: his playfulness, his expertise with the opera seria formula, lots of innovation and the great tunes never stop.

One of the great things about it is that Rossini knows how to write for the voice and won’t let the orchestra intrude but he has also written excellent instrumental parts. Also peppering the score with ensembles and keeping the choir active really makes a difference in regards to pacing (always fresh).

However, it most likely needs a great team – top singers and a very intelligent conductor. An insightful production doesn’t hurt. It really is shortchanged when the focus is on noodling runs of coloratura or if the conductor thinks the drama needs too much push. Pappano trusts Rossini and focused on bringing out all the inventive details, which are a pleasure to hear. His voice-orchestra balance was optimal.

Compared to the 25th it was like this: Arsace and Semiramide’s act II duet = best moment of the night (and not just in my opinion either. My seatmate dubbed it “fantastic!”, lots of applause and shouts etc. and some teary eyes from me). I just wanted it to go on and on (and luckily Rossini knows a good thing, so, as most duets here, it’s quite long). I still think Ah, come mai quell’anima is the more beautiful duet but this is wonderful, especially with Barcellona and JDD who work together so well. Have a listen to how they sounded in Munich earlier this year (imo, not nearly as good. I actually don’t like that recording and I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before going. I had to agree with the commenter who heard JDD off pitch a lot of the time. Esposito came off majorly bland of tone (to me, who am not his greatest fan to begin with). The duet is beautiful, though).

Brownlee (still no ping, from the lower slips in the auditorium) had some of the most amazing floated notes I’ve ever heard in Ah dov’è il cimento? Seriously, that stuff was staggering, to the point I had to remember where my loyalties lay 😉 cue in severe shaking from Azema1 and that quip about how if she didn’t think Arsace was the biggest hero in the world she’d totally go for Idreno. Don’t listen to his 2013 rendition found on ‘tube as it’s vastly inferior. Sadly it seems to be his only rendition on youtube.

His interaction with JDD in the act I finale, where everybody was trying to come to terms with the appearance of Nino’s ghost was acoustically interesting: his lines were louder than hers but this appeared deliberate, giving a very welcome depth to the sound. However his act II aria saw surprising ups and downs in concentration, which makes this performance one of the most curious I’ve witnessed.

Pertusi’s pre-mad aria recit was again his strongest moment – he’s really good at that kind of thing, vivid and credible. Also he had many very Verdian flashes through the night (and I mean that in a good way. Philip II was calling?). JDD did sound (even) more cautious with the very highs and I think I remember a moment where the sound came out a bit unfocused but other than that she was as strong and committed as usual.

Now that I could focus more on things other than the immediate impact, I thought Arsace spends a lot of time in the lower recesses of the mezzo voice, so perhaps this is a reason VK never sang it (as her voice is darker rather than low, where Barcellona’s is both dark and solidly low). I’m now compelled to hear Hallenberg’s take again. I also had time to realise I’ve been spending so much time listening to Baroque specialists that even a little – understandable – vibrato throws me a bit (Barcellona and Pertusi). I won’t fault them, of course, but it was interesting to see how little JDD uses in comparison. Come to think of it, Brownlee did the same. Unless he has the type I don’t catch. Might be an issue of American vs Italian style?

The choir was (I think) better this time, thought the beginning of the opera still posed challenges.

She may be wicked but she is my mother

Arsace as a character is a bit underdeveloped for contemporary sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, he’s given a pony 😉 I’ve noticed this thing in pre mid-19th century opera (though, come to think of it, heroes continue to be rather intellectually fluffy (see all Wagner)), where we have supposedly accomplished warriors/strategists act very naively in private matters. They are also way too young for those military accolades. Something’s got to give, eh, and that is usually intelligence.

As per libretto Arsace is characterised by being brave (commander of the Babylonian army at the tender age of… about 25, I’d say), dutiful (rushes back to headquarters when Semiramide calls and is unwaveringly on her side even before he learns she’s his mother) and very much in love (his entrance aria reminisces about how he saved Azema from marauders and then their eyes met = opera love).

All of a sudden he’s hit with major existential questions, which he is ill equipped to answer. Then again, who of us would have an easy time with a mother who wants to marry us and who has also, incidentally, offed our father? Plus the realisation that we’re next in line as the country’s top honcho? All of these revelations in one day, the same day we were merely supposed to announce our wedding (to someone else than the mum)! Barcellona is very good at portraying the youthful hero with all his youthful imaturity mixed with the earnest desire to do the right thing by everyone. I have cats to hug when things get weird, why shouldn’t Arsace have a pony? I also see that moment as his return to his childhood room, with the pictures and the toys one’s parents keep in the attic (or spare room).

The ending is rather poignant, with the hacked to death Semiramide reaching wordlessly (a victory for realism! thank you, Rossini) towards her son and Arsace’s duty tragically winning over love in grand opera seria style, as he ascends the stairs to the throne and glory. For his unexpected ascension to top honours he looks shattered so who knows che mai sarà.

Singing-wise, Barcellona was the picture of understated poise, with excellent stamina and that beautiful lyric tone needed for best results in belcanto trouser roles.

So now that this first ever ROH run is over I can’t wait until they revive it 😉 hopefully with a similarly strong cast and Pappano (or someone else who can do Rossini justice on this level).

late November view of London from Alexandra Palace


  1. Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). 
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ROH Winter 2017/18 tickets now on general sale

It’s bright1 and early here for dehggi, as the loot was worth it:

Semiramide with JDD/Barcellona/Brownlee/D’Arcangelo

Salome being Salome (even with McVicar’s vision); next year I’m spoiled rotten: two cool operas to choose from for an outing on my birthday! I predictably went with:

Il ritorno d’Ulisse because when Monteverdi calls one must answer, especially after the great success with L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse two years ago. Let’s hope they’ll livestream this one as well.

There was 0 pain getting in/booking this time. Good job ROH!


  1. actually, it’s rather foggy (but warm). 

Semiramide, Penelope and Salome in the not so distant future

I guess everybody knows by now that JDD had to pull out of the European dates of the Ariodante tour. But there will be plenty of JDD in London later this year, as Semiramide is finally taking place this November at ROH and she has two dates and a Masterclass scheduled at Wiggy at the end of that production.

ROH returns to the Roundhouse for Il ritorno d’Ulisse (Christine Rice as Penelope) next January, which gives yours truly hope that in a year or two we’ll see a Poppea at the Roundhouse as well 😉 you never know. The news about this Ulisse has somehow bypassed me thus far so it was very welcome today.

January is for once busy, as Salome is about as well. Can’t say I’m the biggest Byström fan, but Michaela Schuster is Herodias. Now that I’m older and wiser I’d really like to see her again in Die Frau ohne Schatten. But I suppose she can do ornery as well 😉

Fluid Semiramide at the 2016 Proms

Again catching up with my links of interest. I didn’t intend to write about this (because it’s so long and I only had 2 1/2hrs set out for it), all I wanted was to casually listen to it whilst sewing a curtain for the kitchen (as you do).

But I was soon very impressed with how Mark Elder handled the score. He kept it light and clear and flowing though the tempi weren’t particularly speedy. His cast was very well chosen for Rossini, with – aside from the main ladies who were known quantities to me and of which Barcellona is a current staple in Rossini contralto roles – an excellent Assur in Mirko Palazzi and a pretty neat Idreno in Barry Banks.

I don’t reccommend the interval chat (more of an intro to Rossini’s Semiramide pre-recorded chat), because the two talkers say little of any importance. On top of that, one of them has the horrible old skool habit of calling everything enormous (the scale of the opera, the length of the acts, the difficulty of the title role etc.) and the other’s speech is riddled with irksome parasites such as “sort of” and “if you like”. I sort of didn’t like it.

I don’t yet know if they finished as well as they started but it seems a very good choice for anyone who wants a contemporary take on Semiramide. Opera Rara with Elder/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and this very cast (= the same team) have actually just finished recording it UNCUT so you’ll get to hear it in all its 4hrs+ glory as soon as they sort it out.

Edit 16/09/16: finally finished it! Very good stuff. I’m now curious how the recording will be, comparatively.

The secret is in the sauce

This wonderful production finally opened up the greatness of Semiramide to me. It was long overdue. Now if I can get a production to do a similar thing with Idomeneo.

Sometimes the right visuals will make you more receptive to the music within, just as the right singers will make previously dull sounding music suddenly appealing. Now combine the two.