Bavarian State Opera
Alex Esposito (Assur), Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Daniela Barcellona (Arsace) in David Alden's production of Semiramide at the Bavarian State Opera
© Wilfried Hösl
DiDonato as Semiramide
© Wilfried Hösl
Elsa Benoit as Princess Azema
© Wilfried Hösl
EVEN THOUGH MUNICH was the site of Semiramide’s first performance in Germany—scarcely a year after the 1823 world premiere of Rossini’s opera, in Venice—the difficulty of finding an adequate cast, combined with a gradual decline of the public’s taste for opera seria, has made the work a scarcity in Germany. Semiramide is a long and difficult opera. Rossini’s score contains nearly three-and-one-half hours of inspired melodic invention that plumbs emotional depths and quite often requires awe-inspiring coloratura technique, while Voltaire’s original drama, adapted for Rossini by Gaetano Rossi, can be a stretch at best.
On February 12, at the first evening of its new Semiramide production in the Nationaltheater, Bavarian State Opera proved itself more than equal to the challenge of finding an ideal cast for a work that depends on the virtuosity of its singers for its success. Joyce DiDonato’s enormous talent is unparalleled in today’s opera world; she has the allure of a true diva without the baggage associated with that word. Her regal bearing spoke volumes, her emotional involvement in the title role was riveting and her brilliant coloratura took one’s breath away. DiDonato’s “Bel raggio lusinghier” brought down the house in Act I, and she amazed and stupefied her audience throughout the entire evening.
DiDonato was partnered by the extraordinary Daniela Barcellona in the trouser-role of Arsace—a part every bit as long and challenging as the title role. Barcellona’s mastery was also evident from her first scene, “Eccomi alfine in Babilonia.” Whether in aria or cabaletta, recitative or ensemble, both DiDonato and Barcellona showed astounding musicianship and technique. The evil Assur may be one of the few basses in operatic history who has been given a mad scene all his own. Alex Esposito, virile of voice, made a dashing, swashbuckling villain able to hold his own in everything except perhaps his more demanding coloratura passages. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, limpid of voice and singing with exquisite style, was an exemplary Idreno, Simone Alberghini was a cogent, priestly Oroe and Elsa Benoit, in an outrageously lovely costume, was the picture of Princess Azema.
After a somewhat flaccid rhythmical beginning to the Overture and a bit too much dynamic subtlety in the opening horn theme and the measures that followed, Michele Mariotti settled down to conduct a compact, well-structured performance. More importantly, he breathed with his singers, giving them the support so necessary in this type of music. Stage director David Alden placed the action in a modern-dress pseudo-Arabia. Buki Shiff’s costumes were absolutely exquisite: Semiramide’s royal garb and her deep blue nightdress as well as Azema’s golden sheath were truly eye-catching. Paul Steinberg’s sets were utilitarian; the backdrop pictures of the idealized royal family or of cascading waterfalls with rhythmically gyrating butterflies suggested more kitsch than meaning. Although Alden’s production allowed the artists on stage to sing without hindrance, the director chose to poke fun at the plot. By depicting artificial “types” instead of real people—and without offering a strong political, sociological or emotional point of view—Alden countermanded the deep feeling with which Rossini’s music imbues the characters. —Jeffrey A. Leipsic