Rossini’s “Semiramide”

Angela Meade stars in the title role of Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Met’s “Semiramide” delivers a visual and bel canto feast

By David Wrigh
Tue Feb 20, 2018

Angela Meade stars in the title role of Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

While figure skating was in full swing at the Winter Olympics Monday night, over at the Metropolitan Opera a cast of singer-athletes was performing impressive vocal triple-triples in Rossini’s Semiramide

John Copley’s spectacular production, returning to the Met stage for the first time since 1993, offered ancient Assyrian splendor to match the composer’s fabulously ornate arias and lusty choruses

But make no mistake–in a score conceived in the two traditions of opera seria and bel canto, spectacle and stage action took a back seat to the voice, the voice, the voice

Soprano Angela Meade anchored the cast with a fearless performance in the title role of the morally compromised and lovestruck queen, issuing a blizzard of sixteenth and thirty-second notes and dizzying leaps with expressive power to back them up. Her ode to love “Bel raggio lusinghier” bubbled and soared with little apparent effort

Meade shared the bel canto spotlight with a cast that was equal to their challenging tasks and sometimes much more–as when Javier Camarena, introducing himself as the Indian prince Idreno in “Là dal Gange,” lit up the house with his agile, vibrant high tenor

The main burden of action and expression in Gaetano Rossi’s libretto fell not so much on the title character as on Arsace, the victorious general–object of the queen’s affections (though, unbeknownst to anyone including himself, actually her long-lost son), suitor of the princess Azema, and eventually the reluctant instrument of the gods’ retribution on the sinful queen

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong shouldered this task with occasional excursions into a shining top range but mainly a strong lower register that gave heft to her gender-crossing role. Rossini stirred the general’s fealty to the queen and her passionate desire for him together in the radiant quasi-love duet “Serbami ognor,” which Meade and DeShong turned into a memorable efflorescence of trills and scales Monday night

If bass Ildar Abdrazakov offered a shade less power and ease in the bel canto idiom than others in the cast, he more than made up for it with menacing stage presence as the ambitious prince Assur. Besides strongly contesting other characters in his drive for power, Abdrazakov eloquently conveyed Assur’s agitation and despair in his so-called “mad scene,” actually a Macbeth-like confrontation with an apparition foretelling his doom

Presiding over the whole drama, at beginning and end and at key moments along the way, was the imposing physical and vocal presence of bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the high priest Oroe. In a plot swirling with conspiracies, mistaken identities, and love triangles and polygons, Green’s steady performance provided a gods’-eye view

Conversely, the ghost of murdered King Nino, symbolizing everything that was rotten in the state of Assyria, sounded suitably hollow-voiced in bass Jeremy Galyon’s frightening appearance at the end of Act I

As the comely Azema, object of three princes’ affections, Sarah Shafer sang her few lines prettily with a firm vocal core in her Met debut

The Met chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, had plenty to do all evening, not only bolstering the grand temple and palace scenes, but supporting and commenting on many of the arias as priests, soldiers, ladies-in-waiting, etc. Splendid or discreet as necessary, the choral singers fully inhabited their role as an essential element in the drama

The orchestra did likewise under Maurizio Benini’s direction, enhancing the arias with Rossini’s many felicities of scoring and infectious rhythms. Although the famous overture sounded a little rushed and unhinged in spots, other orchestral interludes were rich in scene-setting atmosphere

Not that the scenery itself needed much setting, with John Conklin’s monumental sets and Michael Stennett’s opulent costumes providing a visual feast. John Froelich’s shadowy lighting of the final tomb scene made the climactic murder-by-mistake believable, and Act I’s final palace scene glittered with more gold than a Trump Tower bathroom

Semiramide will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and March 3 and 17, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 6 and 14, and 1 p.m. March 10.; 212-362-2000

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