Stylized Look, Virtuoso Singing in Met’s Semiramide

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; March 6, 2018—Rossini’s Semiramide, all four hours of it, is more a pageant and showcase than it is a dramatic whole. It’s not easy to engage an audience in the politics of ancient Babylon, so, as was his wont, Rossini keeps us riveted by showing us what singers are capable of in arias (for soprano, mezzo, two basses, tenor), duets (soprano and mezzo–two of them, mezzo and bass, soprano and different bass) and a gaggle of ensembles. The orchestration is Rossini at his most opulent. We also get his signature buildups with catchy rhythms and occasional very moving moments within the artificiality of the plot and setting.

The Met’s revival of John Conklin’s 1990 production has all of the pluses and minuses one might expect. The lavish, campy sets, which are three curtains deep into the Met stage, depict a faux-fallen Babylon, with cracked “marble” columns but enough textiles to start a company in wall hangings; carpets and costumes (the latter by Michael Stennett) are all a feast for the eyes if “the eyes” were really hoping for a night out at Radio City Music Hall. It’s garish and extravagant, but satisfying in a “grand” sort of way. The chorus, frequently present, walks onto the stage, stands, sings, and leaves and the scenery changes often enough to make you think that elevator doors are opening onto different floors of a department store. The singers more or less stand and deliver, sometime with swords drawn, sometimes not. Inexplicably, one character slouches behind a rock during a duet with another in the opera’s second half.

But what singing! Presumably that’s why people show up, and the Met is offering bang for the buck. Angela Meade, everyone’s favorite soprano to have mixed feelings over, seems finally to have either come into her own as an artist or found a role completely congenial to her stature, temperament, and most of all, voice. The role of Semiramide was a vehicle for Joan Sutherland in her prime. It is not for a chirpy coloratura; it is composed for an incredibly agile voice with a strong middle range, plenty of room for embellishments, and a fierce, strong top register, capable of riding over ensembles. It also, particularly in its duets with Arsace, requires flawless timing and an ability to blend voices with an equally adept mezzo–not unlike in Bellini’s Norma.

Meade, perhaps still not a true stage animal (was Dame Joan?), sang brilliantly–every roulade in place, high notes big and gleaming, and pro-active in her duets. Elizabeth DeShong, in her first major role in the house, was more than impressive. Arsace requires, in truth, a voice that sits a bit lower than DeShong’s; her voice tends to get bigger as it goes higher, which adds brilliance, but the lack of weight at the bottom results in a lack of gravitas. Still, she’s a superb artist.

In a class by himself is Javier Camarena, singing the role of Idreno, an Indian Prince, a part that is truly expendable, but that contains a pair of high-flying showpieces that only the bravest undertake with confidence and the power and taste to decorate. Camarena dazzled. As the villainous Assur, the excellent Ildar Abdrazakov made a gallant, powerful effort, and while much of the fiorature found him fudging, enough of it was clear, as was his voice and intent. Ryan Speedo Green brought authority with his big, dark sound as the High Priest, Oroe. Maurizio Benini conducted–having cut 45 minutes from the score, some not altogether wisely, much of it a relief–and he seemed more to be directing traffic than adding insights or inspiration. The singers were rewarded with the audience’s great enthusiasm.