It's sometimes quite difficult to convince an audience numbed by countless Barbieri di Siviglia that Rossini's opera seria is actually what the cool kids are listening to; and more powah to Caramoor's 13th season of Bel Canto series (part of the annual International Music Festival in Katonah, NY) to awaken our purer Rossinian sensibilities with the critical edition of Semiramide, one of the Italian composer's grandest opere serie.
Coupled with Semiramide, Caramoor's 2009 Festival offered Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, another bel canto stunner, conducted by Will Crutchfield and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. But OC was really looking forward to the critical edition of Semiramide, painstakingly studied and prepared by University of Chicago professor & musicologist Philip Gossett (maximum scholar of Italian opera, the general editor of Rossini's and Verdi's critical works, and recipient of the prestigious Cavaliere della Gran Croce). Gossett restored a major cut to Semiramide: the dramatic death scene where the Babylonian princess meets her fate near the finale of the 3.5 hour opera (which was originally added by Rossini for a Paris revival). I mean, after listening to the story about a woman who kills her husband so she can rule as queen and then falls in love with her son, it's nice karma payback.
Through the driving rain that marked the northern pilgrimage to Katonah and the (ew ew ew) muddy floor of the 1700-seat Venetian Theater (really just a glorified, outdoor stage covered by a huge white tent), Caramoor's submissive (and markedly waspy) audience became rather enthused as Semiramide ignited the air and brought all the juicy pathos that we cherish in opera. Via Crutchfield, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and a cast of excellent singers, the beauties of the score were flawlessly embraced, and the art of bel canto flourished.
Semiramide was composed in 1823 while Rossini was at the end of his Italian residency, simultaneously interned at Venice's Teatro la Fenice. It was the Italian composer's last Italian opera, also written in Italy. Italy overload. After the success of Semiramide, he left for Paris, where he died 45-years later.
Semiramide became highly influential in the standard opera repertory, as it was the opera that all the subsequent composers turned to for the grand prototype, and it greatly defined the future of Italian opera. As Gossett outlined in his pre-concert sketch, Bellini's Norma contains quite a few allusions from Semiramide, especially manifest in Adalgisa's scoring.
The opera eventually fell out of the standard repertory for quite a few reasons, practical (not many singers could actually sing Rossini's florid passages) and cultural (Nabucco greatly influenced the style and trend of popular opera, which buried Semiramide's flavor to the warehouses). Semiramide fans are thankful to singers like Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, and Joan Sutherland for bringing it back into fashion through the second half of the 20th century.
Will Crutchfield, Caramoor's Director of Opera, had the daunting task to variate the score slightly for Caramoor's limitations. For instance, Rossini had scored the opera with three trombones. However, Will Crutchfield dropped the horns (for a few reasons, although Gossett hinted that they were axed due to budgetary restrictions). Crutchfield and Gossett also modified bits of ornamentation in the score that originally weren't there, but were added to create something closer to what was in vogue at the time of the composition.
Crutchfeld's take on the overture had elegantly delineated elements, wrapped in an unguarded gallop. He colored the usual sprite composition with lots of tension, morose foreshadowing of the grim story that was about to unfold. It was a respectful approach, appropriate for one of Rossini's most serious opera.
Idreno was sung by tenor Lawrence Brownlee with gorgeous, bright phrasing and a stage presence that is infectious. Brownlee also sung lead Nemorino in L'Elisir for the Caramoor Festival, and he returns to the Metropolitan Opera this upcoming season opposite Renee Fleming in Armida. With Caramoor's past constituents the likes of Takesha Kizart, Kate Aldrich, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, we're sure Juan Diego Brownlee isn't far behind. We relished his arias, especially "La speranza piu' soave" ... "Si, sperar voglio contento".
Assur was bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, who started on shaky ground, but solidified nicely as the evening progressed. We know how difficult it is to get ones mind and mouth around such glittering bel canto ornamentation, and Mobbs showed a few initial limitations with Rossini's brutal and killer black diamond ornaments.
Soprano Angela Meade was the breakout star of the night (says the consensus, not necessarily OC). The soprano was making her Caramoor debut as the Babylonian queen Semiramide, and suffused the role with a rich, full, woody voice. If that wasn't enough, her confident and solid stage presence was excellent. The invulnerable princess had great momentum and attacked, spat out, and buried all of Rossini's glittering ornamentation. Meade will be covering Renée Fleming's lead at the Metropolitan Opera's upcoming Armida (yeah, she'll be working again with Brownlee). She slayed "Bel raggio lusinghier" ... "Dolce pensiero".
Arsace was Vivica Genaux, the mezzo with the golden la Ceci touch. Frankly, the color of her voice was not all that gorgeous, but she's transcendent on stage. Each passage is blown out by the mezzo in a kiss, effortlessly and eloquently. Her pristine muscle control is off the charts, and her breakneck modulations were as natural as breathing to the stellar mezzo. Vivica is naturally confident on stage, 'tho no stranger to Caramoor, as she stared in Rossini's La Donna del Lago for the 1997 festival season. Her "Eccomi alfine in Babilonia" was particularly stunning, as was her duet with Meade, "Giorno d'orrore!" ... "Madre -- addio".
Oroe was sung by bass Christopher Dickerson, who showed-off his gorgeous lower register with a calm and controlled perception. And an honorable mention goes to soprano Heather Hill's Azema, with her sweet, doll-like voice.
The long night of Rossini arias felt like a mere whisper, the fast moving action packed with loads of solos and duets, the cabalettas driving the rambunctious frogs wild -- their loud happy noises finally petered out after twilight.