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

Tue Feb 20, 2018 at 2:31 pm
Angela Meade stars in the title role of Rossini's "Semiramide" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

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. metopera.org; 212-362-2000.

 


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

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2018 at 1:51 pm by Frank Sellitto

    I saw it opening night. Truly amazing!

  2. Posted Mar 01, 2018 at 3:04 am by Sarah

    Am I the only one who thought this was a boring slog? This is the first time I have ever left a Met performance half way through. I can handle park and bark, but when the singers don’t do any acting, it’s not worth the time. Meade has a great voice but is a cold performer. The only person actually doing any acting on stage was Abrazakov. Great voice and some actual commitment to character.

    The production is visually beautiful, but yet again, as with all of the Met’s recent productions, it’s poorly lit. They have the ghost of King Ning singing LITERALLY in the dark. It looks like a mistake and yet clearly it’s intentional. I don’t sing in the dark and I don’t want to watch anyone else do so. Meade’s coloratura is not enough to make this show worth three and a half hours of sitting still.

    Camarena was sick tonight, and his cover was adequate but clearly a bit out of his league. I love Camarena and wish I could have seen him sing this role. Maybe I’d have liked the show more.

  3. Posted Mar 04, 2018 at 3:04 pm by CastaDiva

    @ Sarah
    Boring slog?? Not a bit of it. I was at this last night, and enjoyed it immensely, as apparently did the others in the audience. We had a substitute conductor, Gareth Morrell, who filled in for Benini. This caused me some misgivings, as the quartet early in the first half sounded somewhat scrambled, as the singers tried to keep up with each other and with the orchestra; but this soon righted itself, and things proceeded smoothly thereafter.

    It was unfortunate that Camarena did not sing the night you went, as he was indeed wonderful, and I couldn’t put it better than the critic in his review above. But so were the others. Meade sounded the best I’ve heard her at the Met, perhaps because the role is so suited to her voice. DeShong, too, was very good as Arsace. The low male voices were all excellent; I was particularly impressed with the deep, mellow bass of Speedo Green.

    I didn’t think anyone was singing in the dark, as you put it. The Ghost of King Nino was, after all, a ghost, and meant to be seen in a spectral light. Although he appeared in an ashy mist, he was certainly visible to me. To show a ghost under the same lighting as used for the living characters onstage would not differentiate the living from the dead, and would be confusing to the viewer. And whether or not you sing in the dark is neither here nor there, but I daresay that if you were asked to sing the role of a ghost you would be made to sing it in lighting of some degree of obscurity.

    Let’s give the Met credit where it’s due. They gave us a starry and capable cast that sang superbly in a vocally challenging opera. Kudos, Met, and thanks!

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