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Penda, Pizzolato; Osborn, Ragazzo, Mastroni; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani. Libretto online only. Naxos 8. 660340-42 (3)
This issue, taken from three applause-filled 2012 live performances in Germany's Rossini in Wildbad Festival, presents a genuinely useful and enjoyable addition to the Semiramide discography. Not since Naxos's studio versions of Barbiere,with Ramón Vargas, and Tancredi, staggeringly sung by Ewa Podleś, Sumi Jo and Stanford Olsen, has the company produced a Rossini title so competitive with existing versions.
Of course — beyond the evergreen showpiece "Bel raggio lusinghier," which never disappeared from the recital repertory — most listeners worldwide acquired a knowledge of Semiramide from Decca's 1966 set, which featured epochal vocalism by Sutherland and Horne, joined by deeply unsatisfying male colleagues. That balance was redressed in Deutsche Grammophon's 1994 set, with Samuel Ramey (Assur) unbetterable and Frank Lopardo (Idreno) terrific, though Jennifer Larmore's stylish Arsace gets rather vehement. Unfortunately, Cheryl Studer makes a peculiar lead, run-challenged and vaguely characterized; Ion Marin's account of the score emerges flashy and trivial.
By contrast, Antonino Fogliani's conducting here is enlivening and well conceived. He never overweights the musical framework, allowing for largely unforced vocalism from the highly gifted cast. He also utilizes the critical edition by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda, adding fifteen minutes to what one hears on DG — which in turn exceeds Richard Bonynge's Decca set by forty minutes: Semiramide is as long as Lohengrin! As an example of how performance practice lags behind scholarship, several singers offer up long-yelled final cadential high notes evoking 1970s OONY and City Opera Donizetti evenings.
Demonstrating long, loud high notes seems of particular concern to John Osborn, whose Idreno offers otherwise adept and technically impressive Rossini style, if a timbre notably less attractive than that of Lopardo on DG (or Olsen, remarkable on the 1991 Met DVD version). The prettiest, healthiest timbre here comes from Marianna Pizzolato (Arsace), who made a sensation as Malcolm in this past summer's Donna del Lago at Santa Fe. With a rich, warm, Italianate sound, she commands the requisite agility and phrasing, sounding like the late Lucia Valentini-Terrani, only with better-knit registers. (What her young hero doesn't sound is masculine — but what a fine singer!)
The heart of the performance, as she should be, is the Babylonian queen herself. Alex Penda (who as Alexandrina Pendatchanska blazed through Ermione in Santa Fe and at NYCO) is, in temperament and delivery, a real prima donna: her vocalism, while admirably wide-ranging, dramatically pointed and stylistically attuned, is not always ravishing, but it scores its points with panache. Unlike many Semiramides, Penda is credibly a killer as well as a siren. Lorenzo Ragazzo (Assur) and Andrea Mastroni (Oroe) both have fine bass voices that are apt to spread on sustained notes. Overall, this is a worthy and stimulating performance.
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